WHEN I woke up yesterday I didn’t jump out of bed and punch the air – life ambled on in much the same way it has over the last few months. ‘Freedom Day’ felt more like ‘Groundhog Day’.
Scotland has barely been liberated from Covid restrictions and I defy anyone to notice the difference – unless they happen to be a 21-year-old keen to knock back shots before hitting the clubs.
Last week, there was a brief moment of cheer when First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that Monday 9 August would see almost all restrictions lifted. But that day came and went, and for most of us, life in the time of coronavirus hasn’t noticeably changed.
We are far from back to normal as masks are still compulsory in shops and other indoor spaces, and on public transport, although more people are allowed to use it, and working from home is still the norm. When the kids go back to secondary school next week, they and their teachers will still have to wear masks for six weeks, although whole classes will no longer have to stay at home if an infection is discovered.
Granted, adults and children will no longer have to self-isolate if identified as a close contact so long as they are symptomless and can provide a negative PCR test, but the restrictions on overseas travel remain with the confusing red, amber and green classifications requiring variously PCR tests and quarantine.
Everything is far from back to normal and the virus ‘is still with us’, as Health Secretary Humza Yousaf reminded us, urging caution. The major difference Freedom Day brought is that restrictions, other than registering test and protect details, have been lifted in pubs and nightclubs.
So, while we still edge up the aisles in supermarkets with our sanitised, sandpapery hands pushing wiped down trolleys and, masked up like bandits, avoid standing too close to each other in galleries and indoor visitor attractions, it’s absolutely fine for crowds of youngsters, many of them yet to be vaccinated, to cram into nightclubs.
If I look back to my dim and distant youth, nightclubs were dark, hot, smelly, stuffy and not-too-clean places, filled with loud music where you had to shout in each other’s faces to be heard, and where there was plenty of laughing, singing, sweating and snogging. All hugely entertaining – at that age anyway – and I don’t begrudge youngsters their fun one bit, but like most of the confusing Covid rules, it doesn’t make sense. We’re told: be careful, but party on.
It’s clearly a purely economic move to lift restrictions from football crowds, music festivals, pubs and nightclubs – and people in the hospitality, events and entertainment sectors must be enormously relieved as their livelihoods have been endangered over the last 18 months.
But why the rush? Wouldn’t it make more sense to wait to open nightclubs until nearly everyone in all age groups is vaccinated, including young people, who are the last in the queue? According to recent figures, around 70 per cent of 18 to 29-year-olds have been given their first jab, but that still leaves a third of them unprotected. After all, schools remain cautious because those aged 16 and 17 only began to be vaccinated last weekend.
Experts say the virus will become endemic, joining the 200 or so other seasonal respiratory viruses in circulation and that we will never reach herd immunity – the point when so many people have protection from Covid, thanks to antibodies generated by vaccination or infection that the virus runs out of bodies to infect.
Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the University of Texas Covid-19 Modelling Consortium told the BBC that “achieving herd immunity” is now “probably impossible” because of the highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus and its potential to infect the 85% of the world’s population which is not yet fully vaccinated as well as some vaccinated adults in so-called breakthrough infections. While the existing vaccines may have enabled us to reach herd immunity with earlier strains of the virus, Delta, is just too transmissible.
“It’s looking unlikely that we’ll ever get to a point around the globe that we have enough immunity that Covid goes away for good,” Professor Meyers said. So, the virus is here to stay, and, of course we can’t stay away from each other forever. I just don’t understand the logic of lifting some restrictions too early when we are so close to getting nearly everyone vaccinated.
We are “nearly” at the end of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College, London. While he predicts “a few flares and outbreaks” in Europe this winter, he is “pretty confident” that in countries with high rates of vaccination, including the UK, the pandemic phase of the virus will be over by the spring.
That’s fantastic news, and we are incredibly lucky to have such an efficient vaccination programme, but while the number of Covid patients in Scottish hospitals is now well below the levels of the first wave in spring 2020 and the second in January 2021, the pressure on health services remains intense. The knock-on effect means the NHS will be dealing with the legacy from the virus for years to come.
Last night, youngsters may have taken to the dance floor with unbridled exuberance, but it certainly wasn’t Freedom Day for our hard-pressed nurses and doctors.
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