The government has resisted (so far, at least) declaring a new Bank Holiday to mark July 19 as ‘Freedom Day’, but a future annual reminder of when they finally absolved themselves of any further responsibility to deal with Covid-19 might be in order. Having spent (and often wasted) billions of pounds dealing with the pandemic in the past 18 months, they’ve decided that it’s now down to ‘us’ – the public – to deal with it. Not entirely, of course.
The Job Retention Scheme is planned to continue until the end of September, although employers are already being expected to make an increased contribution to wages. And there’s still the little matter of some 1.67 million Covid-related business loans that altogether amount to £80bn of lending, most of which are still out there awaiting eventual repayment. Or not, as is likely in a great many cases, since even the government acknowledges that some of the businesses which claimed these loans between March 2020 and March 2021 are no longer trading entities.
Unfortunately, by removing most or all of the Covid-related legal ‘restrictions’ the government is simply shifting additional responsibilities onto businesses. All businesses have an over-riding legal responsibility for the safety and welfare of their staff and customers, imposed by so many (non-Covid-related) laws that they could keep an infinite number of lawyers employed until the earth is swallowed by the sun in however many billion years. So, whether it’s a transport company, pub, shop or for that matter, a petrol station, business owners will still need to take all reasonable steps to protect both their staff and their customers. But without much of the back-up that the emergency ‘restrictions’ have provided for the last 18 months.
Look at the issue of face masks. Many businesses had already experienced difficulty enforcing the wearing of masks by some of their more recalcitrant customers even when their final resort had been to call the police and have those customers removed. It is not unnatural that with Covid numbers increasing again, staff working in public-facing roles would undoubtedly feel safer if their customers were still wearing masks. Without any legal back-up, that will be almost impossible to enforce. Likewise, the idea of ‘social distancing’. It should go without saying that businesses that have spent a great deal of money installing screens, sanitary provision, etc would be ill-advised to remove all of that just yet. In fact, to put it a little more strongly, they might indeed be deemed to be negligent. However, as far as restricting numbers of customers in the shop is concerned, the position becomes rather unclear.
Common sense says that the owner of any business premises should be able to restrict numbers inside for safety reasons, irrespective of Covid. There have however been numerous cases even during the lockdown periods where customers have tried to ignore any restrictions set by retailers and the only solution has again been to resort to the police and the Covid rules.
We live in a socially complicated and litigious world where every group and individual ‘knows their rights’ and many of them are not hesitant about claiming those through confrontation – whether physical or through the courts. Unfortunately, in the present climate if the government removes legal backing for even basic Covid-related protection measures, it will be business owners and public-facing employees who will carry the risks and liabilities of dealing with an epidemic which is still dangerous and that hasn’t magically gone away.
And that, of course, is the problem. Officially the government can congratulate itself on the number of people that the NHS has managed to vaccinate in a little over six months, proclaim ‘Freedom Day’, and effectively wash its hands of further responsibility.
All this while new case numbers are rocketing, as are hospital admissions, and the NHS is nowhere near even beginning to clear the backlog of non-Covid work which has been delayed in the past 18 months. The scientific consensus is gloomy: while vaccination ‘works’ and certainly has helped reduce the number of people actually dying of the disease, it is not 100% effective at preventing reinfection. It has also reduced the numbers of people needing intensive treatment, but we are seeing the emergence of ‘long Covid’. And, of course, as we head into autumn there is the fear that new variants of Covid will coincide with the flu season, and that there will need to be further vaccination programmes even for those who’ve already had two jabs.
It’s down to who you believe at the end of the day: politicians or scientists? So, enjoy ‘freedom’ – while it lasts; given this government’s record it’s not beyond reason to expect them to panic again when they realise that it’s not all over yet, and reintroduce yet another full lockdown by the end of the summer.