It was a phrase first coined in the UK, which abandoned almost all of its safety protocols in mid-July. “Freedom Day” seemed an apt descriptor for this gung ho reversal of the lockdown rules that Britain had been required to follow for more than a year. Social distancing guidelines and masks would no longer be legally mandatory, and any caveats on indoor socialising would be lifted. The date’s arrival, July 19, was imbued with a sort of D-Day spirit. The battle was over. The war had been won.
Except, it hadn’t. Tens of thousands of people in the UK were still being diagnosed and an average of 90 deaths were being recorded every day. The level of vaccination – at that time, just 67 per cent of the adult population was double jabbed – was also still dangerously low. But with safety measures like mask-wearing and social distancing now a matter of personal choice rather than legal responsibility, coupled with the celebratory sound of “Freedom Day” ringing in people’s ears, Brits bounded back into nightclubs and pubs, flocked to restaurants and cafés, and packed out cinemas and theatres as if there was nothing to fear. At the time, the UK was in the throes of its third wave, which was yet to hit its peak.
Despite striking a similarly victorious tone with the name of NSW’s ‘roadmap to freedom’, premier Gladys Berejiklian has said that she is uncomfortable using the term ‘freedom day’, acknowledging that people in the state will need to remain vigilant, even after lockdown settings begin to ease.
“While we are all looking forward, almost a gallop to the finish line, in terms of the double doses, we need to make sure that what we do is done cautiously and also moderately,” she said on September 24. “Everything we start doing, we look forward to doing, must be done with a degree of responsibility because otherwise too many people will end up in hospital.”
There are some notable differences between the NSW plan to reopen and the UK’s ‘freedom day’. Berejiklian has pledged that freedoms will be exclusively for the vaccinated as a way to leverage greater uptake of the jab. This stick-over-carrot approach has been remarkably successful, with some areas of Sydney, such as Camden and the Hills Shire, reaching first dose tallies of more than 95 per cent of eligible adults.
But vaccination, as the state’s chief medical officer Dr Kerry Chant has said, “is not a silver bullet”. In addition to breakthrough infections, fully vaccinated people infected with the Delta variant are still capable of carrying and passing on the virus. While hospitalisations and deaths may decrease, greater circulation of the virus, even amongst vaccinated people, could still produce new variants with the potential to leapfrog the protections of currently available jabs. The WHO has already flagged this as a key reason that safety measures, like masks and social distancing, must remain in play even after vaccination rates climb: “We need to do everything possible to stop the spread of the virus in order to prevent mutations that may reduce the efficacy of existing vaccines.”
There are also those, who through no fault of their own, are unable to be vaccinated or who only acquire a small amount of immunity from the jab, due to being immunocompromised. For them, the end of lockdown brings with it less freedom, not more, as the possibility of encountering the virus while outside of their home becomes increasingly probable.
Even with masks and other tools in place, the transition to 'living with Covid' is likely to be a painful one – Australians are particularly intolerant to the presence of Covid in the community. We have been singularly fortunate in that, while the rest of the world was confronting the reality of thousands of deaths and out-of-control surges, Aussies were enjoying boat parties and interstate holidays and safety rules that seemed more perfunctory than protective. This has also made us vulnerable to complacency. In this country, it is relatively rare to know of someone who has been infected, let alone died, while this is all but a certainty in places like Europe, the UK and the United States. Our understanding of the virus is largely academic, untouched by the sobering experience of witnessing its effects firsthand. It would be easy to turn a blind eye to that danger if it allowed us to grab hold of some semblance of the lives we lived before everything changed last March, gambling that risk for a short-lived reward.
That’s not to say that people shouldn’t look forward to lockdown easing once 70 per cent of adults have been inoculated. After more than three months of stay-at-home orders, it’s understandable that people want something to celebrate. And it is vital, not only for our economy but also for our cultural health, that the eateries, bars, museums, galleries, shops and theatres that make life worth living be allowed to reopen. But believing that we are reaching some sort of finish line would be wishful thinking.
In the UK, in the weeks that followed ‘freedom day’, it seemed its critics had been wrong. Case numbers started to fall, despite experts warning of an explosion. This, however, did not last, and cases in the UK, where mask use and social distancing is still not legally enforced, have returned to nearly 40,000 a day.
It’s a cautionary tale that NSW, as the first state set to reach the 70 per cent reopening target, should heed. The ‘roadmap to freedom’ still includes several important safety measures like mask-wearing in indoor venues, but it also represents a dramatic departure from the current lockdown settings, and the state’s health experts, as well as the Doherty modelling, predict that NSW is likely to experience significant numbers of hospitalisations and deaths as a result. It’s for this reason that Melbourne will remain in lockdown until 80 per cent of its adult population is double jabbed, although this tactic has its own risks, of increased mental illness, unemployment and economic damage. It remains to be seen who – Dan Andrews or Berejiklian – has chosen the best course.
One thing that is certain, however, is that the pandemic will eventually end, but many epidemiologists believe that it is, in all likelihood, impossible to totally eradicate Covid from the world. If the virus is here to stay, as an endemic fixture of life post-2020, it means vaccine passports, booster shots, and masks are likely to be here for the long haul too. But they aren't the things taking away our liberty. They're the best way for us to protect our long-term freedom.