Is there anything more British than a beer garden? The allure of shivering slightly on a bench with your mates and a drink (or two) has provided enough hope to drag me through the lengths of the third lockdown to the Prime Minster’s announcement yesterday on stage two of our roadmap out of lockdown.
‘This is paying off’, he said, letting the country, and indeed the world, know that all requirements have been met for the government to press on as scheduled with the easing of covid restrictions. Never able to resist a Johnson flourish, the PM smiled whilst assuring us that on April 12th he will be ‘cautiously but irreversibly raising a pint to my lips’; I imagine in whichever pub he can cycle to the fastest. Inevitably (I also hope irreversibly), the rest of the country will be joining him. It almost seems by-the-by that non-essential shops, hairdressers, public buildings, gyms, zoos, theme parks and the like will be opening their doors on the same date. There is nothing quite like our alcohol-centric hedonism to inspire a bit of national pride. When the marker of progress in a pandemic is just how quickly you will be able to buy a pint, you know you are in a country with their priorities in check.
It is important to note what has allowed this long-awaited step towards freedom. The vaccination program in Britain has been an enormous success. Over half the population have now had their first jabs (verging on thirty-two million), with the number of second doses taken rising just as rapidly each day. This half of the population, of course, being those most at risk of hospitalisation, so seeing that statistic will provide a lot of comfort for those now locked behind their doors for over a year.
In terms of our global, post-brexit image, this achievement will do wonders – and the government knows it. The briefing yesterday was given in front of a grander background – solid, assured royal blue and oak – giving the whole presentation a magisterial confidence. A stage for the government’s success. Johnson was able to give some good news for once and he wanted everybody to see his country’s assent to the brow of the steep covid-hill. Especially, I imagine, the now struggling EU.
However, and there always will be a ‘however’ for this pandemic, this is only stage two on our roadmap out of restrictions. And a cautious stage two as Johnson reminded us. The majority of the questions following the briefing revolved around the looming concern of, what the government have verbosely called, ‘covid-status certification’ certificates. Yes, we can now have a pint out of a tap and spend money in physical shops rather than just online, but the government are keen to remind us the bigger jumps come in opening indoor venues, stadiums, restaurants and larger outdoor gatherings . As things stand, the stipulation on which these things can come about is being able to prove you do not have the virus. Thankfully, the idea of ‘pub passports’ was ruled out last week (at least for the time being), but I would bet my first pint that this burden of proof will be placed on the public come 17th May and stage three.
Johnson mentioned three ways to get the all-clear: proof you have natural immunity (antibodies from a previous infection), proof you have been vaccinated, or proof you have had two negative test results in the past week. In many ways, and maybe in all the important ways, these measures make a lot of sense. The government would like to keep case numbers down (1 in 370 people currently have the virus) and don’t want to risk the country being placed on any sort of travel ban list. This doesn’t mean that these certificates won’t be a huge inconvenience. For those of us at university, getting a test is straight-forward, it only takes a walk on to campus. But for those who don’t have such easy access to testing centres, or those who are busy with work, being able to take two tests a week will prove to be very difficult. Could it be possible for the government to start letting people take a bit more responsibility over the risk of the virus? If all the vulnerable groups in society are vaccinated, is there a need impose more rules that will be difficult to both follow and enforce? I work part-time at a restaurant and I can only imagine the hassle that checking every customer for some sort of a certificate would cause for a business that has been out of action for close to a year.
‘Hopefully, but…’ was the hinge of a phrase that hovered over the changes announced today. The relief of being able to sit down with friends in a beer garden or walk through a town centre beginning to come alive again will be much welcomed. We can hope things will unravel smoothly, but there are still questions to be asked of the Prime Minister’s roadmap, where and how exactly it will be taking us next.