York Press column – ‘Freedom Day’ set to go ahead
July 14, 2021
While I have often had cause to be heavily critical of the Government’s Covid policy during the last few months, this week I think it is time to give credit where credit is due.
Few would claim that the vaccination programme has been anything other than a success – in fact, my criticism has been that the Government has been too slow to allow the public the freedoms that it so clearly justifies. Now it seems the Government is finally gaining in confidence and has announced that the lifting of remaining limits on social interaction will go ahead on July 19.
This will be welcomed by many, not least those businesses that remain either closed or operating at limited capacity.
People assume that with the return of retail, catering and hospitality, the economy is back to firing on all cylinders. This is far from the case. Restrictions continue to limit the capacity of pubs and restaurants and severely restricting the ability to hold live events.
A constituent who operates a successful local dance school contacted me about the impact restrictions continue to have on her business. The delay to the June 21 reopening came as a great disappointment, leaving her unable to plan ahead. At least now the Government has provided businesses with a date to work with.
As I have mentioned here before, few sectors have been hit harder over the last 15 months than foreign travel.
On this there was another positive development last week with the confirmation that those who have received both doses of a Covid vaccine will be allowed to return from amber list countries without having to quarantine.
Crucially this will also be brought in from July 19. Children under the age of 18 will be included in the exemption, meaning that family holidays will be back on the cards for long enough to provide the industry with a chance of a limited recovery this year.
Families will now be given a meaningful choice of destinations, with confidence boosted by the relative stability of many countries on the amber list as opposed to the constant uncertainty around the status of green list countries.
I was fortunate enough to question the Transport Secretary in the Commons when he made this announcement, and whilst welcoming this important step, I cautioned that the cost and bureaucracy of the testing requirements would become the next major impediment to foreign travel.
Travelling to the majority of destinations will require taking a PCR test either side of each flight, the cost of which must be covered privately and for a family can run into the hundreds of pounds.
My colleague Huw Merriman, Chair of the Transport Select Committee in the Commons has made the sensible suggestion that those travelling should be allowed to take a free (and readily available) lateral flow test and only be required to take a PCR test if they test positive. I hope that the Government considers this as a viable solution.
We also heard a positive announcement from the Government that self-isolation will be scrapped for fully vaccinated contacts of people who have tested positive from August 16.
While this is to be welcomed, the more logical step would have been to time this to coincide with the easing of restrictions on July 19. Without this it is estimated that up to 4.5 million will be asked to self-isolate over the summer period with a knock-on effect for employment, education and holiday plans.
Crucially, the rules around self-isolation for education settings will be revised at the end of this term, meaning that children will no longer be sent home if a member of their ‘bubble’ tests positive.
The problem with this system is that it has been left to individual schools to set the size of these bubbles, meaning that they often go far beyond the close contacts of the student who has tested positive.
The disruptive effect for both children and working parents is hard to overstate, especially at a time where we are wanting our children to catch up on in-person learning and social interaction.
Last week’s announcements show the Government has finally realised that the vaccination campaign has changed the argument around maintaining restrictions.
Whilst concerns remain, what I am hearing from constituents is that the continued occurrence of the virus should not indefinitely delay the return to pre-pandemic life. I hope the Government will continue to listen and ensure the second half of the year is remembered for recovery rather than restrictions.