Freedom Day or a responsibility to protect the vulnerable?

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Coronavirus held a live oral evidence session today on the impact the removal of restrictions on 19 July will have on schools, those who are clinically extremely vulnerable, and on the risks posed by long Covid. The ending of restrictions has been dubbed ‘Freedom Day’.

In the first half the cross-party group heard from members of the public who have provided written evidence to the APPG, including parents of children with long Covid and the clinically vulnerable.

Fear and anxiety over dropping restrictions on ‘Freedom Day’

Parents of children with long Covid and the clinically vulnerable have warned MPs on the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus about their feeling of “fear” and “anxiety” over the government’s plans to drop legal restrictions on 19 July.

The group heard from Sarah Saul from Newcastle. Sarah has two sons aged 15 and 12. She is part of the advocacy group Safe Ed for All. Her eldest son contracted Covid-19 from school last December. Though he has now returned to pre-infection health, he suffered a range of symptoms for many months.  

Sarah said: “How can my 12 and 15-year-olds exercise their personal responsibility when they will be told that masks are no longer allowed in school, that they have to attend, and that no mitigations are in place?” She called for similar mitigation measures as are in place in other countries, including “reducing class sizes, masks for all, and an emphasis on ventilation.”

The group also heard from Sophie Charles from High Wycombe, whose son developed long Covid last October and is still experiencing a range of debilitating symptoms including fatigue, brain fog, chest pain, back pain, insomnia, and tinnitus.

Sophie said: “our 12-year-old was a very fit and healthy young man” and that “the life he was living before he contracted Covid-19 has been devastated by the disease.”

“It’s not the flu”

Sophie also warned MPs that: “It’s not the flu. We shouldn’t expose our children to this virus when we don’t understand the long-term implications,” adding that this would risk effectively sentencing thousands of children to a “stolen childhood.” When asked what she’d say to the prime minister, she said: “I’d ask him to look my son in the eye and tell him the decisions being made are in the best interests of those children and based on scientific evidence, and not based on political expediency and convenience.”

Rachel Winter Jones, a mother of two from Stockport who is clinically extremely vulnerable, said that calling July 19 freedom day is “not helpful”, and that she was “very worried.” She said the government still had lots of “tools in the toolbox” to reduce cases such as mask-wearing or vaccinating children, adding that “just because you have said a date, you don’t have to stick to it.”

In the second half the cross-party group heard from experts on the impact of Covid-19 on the clinically vulnerable and immuno-suppressed, the risk of transmission in schools and mitigation measures and the threat posed to children by long Covid.

Questions about concerns raised from the lifting of most restrictions on 19 July.

Tim Bowen, president of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) told the APPG on Coronavirus that the government is “washing their hands of the responsibility and the safety of children, families and school staff”. He said: “Despite soaring levels of Covid in schools, the government is pressing ahead with, it would appear, removing all safety restrictions.”

He said that in effect the government was “hanging school leaders out to dry. [Schools] are likely to be at odds with parents either for being too cautious or not cautious enough but by abdicating any responsibility for making decisions nationally the government is putting school leaders in the firing line and setting them up to get the full brunt of the criticism from parents unhappy with this approach.”

We need to think about long Covid

Dr Bill Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard University and a faculty member in the Centre for Communicable Disease Dynamics said. “I was stunned to read over the weekend that the chancellor was expressing surprise at the idea that waiting lists were going to increase because I could have told him that several months ago. I think that the thing we need to think about … is long Covid.  .. one BBC report I read [long Covid] is getting close to 400,000 people from what had happened already and around 1,000,000 people have been affected infected in the UK since just the end of May, so given that you have an uncontrolled outbreak at the moment those numbers are likely to increase.”

Professor Adrian Hayday, a professor of immunobiology at King’s College London, told MPs on the APPG that: “To go to so-called freedom day at the point of such extraordinary transmission rates is something I just don’t understand and is an imprisonment of uncertainty and insecurity for millions of people.”

A political decision

Catherine Noakes, professor of environmental engineering for buildings at the University of Leeds who advises the government on ventilation and the transmission of Covid-19, said that it was a “political decision” to open up. She said that “whatever the political decision, we still need those measures in place and for them to be effective.”

In response to what he would like to say to the PM Professor Hayday said that:  “My words to Boris Johnson would be, please watch the data. Please watch what is happening and remember that reversing is not a sign of weakness, in fact it is a sign of courage to respond to data that is telling you that the path you’re treading is an inappropriate one.

Drop the rhetoric around Freedom Day

Layla Moran, Chair of the APPG on Coronavirus, said:

“These heartbreaking stories show why we must be cautious about lifting restrictions on July 19, and remember the human consequences of allowing cases to surge.

“The government’s reckless approach risks creating a lost generation of children with long Covid, while condemning vulnerable people to months of isolation.”

“Boris Johnson must listen to the concerns of parents and the clinically vulnerable and put measures in place to reassure them, including clear guidance on continued mask-wearing and better ventilation in schools.

“It’s time to drop the rhetoric around ‘Freedom Day,’ and remember our collective responsibility to protect the vulnerable.

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