Eased lockdown restrictions cause controversy

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The announcement that England would enter a second period of lockdown came on the 31 October, as Boris Johnson declared the move necessary to avoid the ‘medical and moral disaster’ of the NHS being overwhelmed by coronavirus patients.

Highlighting the rapid spread of the virus, he outlined the potential consequences of not implementing preventative measures: a ‘peak of mortality’ higher than that seen in April, and frontline workers ‘forced to choose which patients to treat, who would get oxygen and who wouldn’t, who would live and who would die’.

Johnson made clear that the lockdown was in part looking forward to the Christmas period

The four-week lockdown is set to end on the 2 December, which raises questions about the motivations behind this timing. On the first day of the new lockdown, Johnson said he had been advised that four weeks would be sufficient for the new restrictions to make ‘a real impact’ on the spread of the virus, but infection rates were not the only factor influencing government decisions.

In his original statement, Johnson made clear that the lockdown was in part looking forward to the Christmas period: ‘If we follow this package of measures in the way that we can and we have done before, I have no doubt people will be able to have as normal a Christmas as possible and that we will be able to get things open before Christmas as well’.

While having ‘as normal a Christmas as possible’ is crucial for bringing together long-separated friends and family and allowing businesses to take advantage of Christmas trade, the government’s focus on this holiday may appear inappropriate in light of its treatment of other religious celebrations. Coronavirus restrictions have paid no heed to Ramadan, Eid, or Diwali, causing millions of Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh families to pass these holidays isolated from their communities and loved ones.

Coronavirus restrictions have paid no heed to Ramadan, Eid, or Diwali

Anger was sparked in particular when the health secretary Matt Hancock announced late in the evening on the 30 July that from midnight families were not permitted to mix at home or in gardens. Coming just three hours before Eid al-Adha, the announcement devastated the celebrations of countless families, with Johnson being dubbed ‘The Grinch who stole Eid’ on social media.

While Hancock denied that the move was intended to prevent Eid celebrations, for many it reinforced the view that ethnic minority groups are suffering disproportionately in this crisis; death rates from the virus have been highest among black and Asian people, with a Public Health England report revealing that racism and inequality may have amplified this disproportionality.

Defending the government’s special treatment of Christmas, Hancock said that while he was ‘sensitive’ to the problem, Christmas should be treated differently because it is ‘a national holiday and it’s the biggest national holiday we have’. The government’s current plans for Christmas will allow people to form three-household bubbles between the 23rd and the 27th December.

“For every one day of relaxation, five days of tighter restrictions would potentially be needed”

While Hancock’s defence is unlikely to satisfy many of those from different faiths, easing lockdown restrictions over Christmas is also problematic in that it will necessitate harsher restrictions following the festive period: Public Health England highlighted that “for every one day of relaxation, five days of tighter restrictions would potentially be needed”.

The heavy cost the country will have to pay for a relaxation of restrictions indicates that the risk of transmission remains high, despite current lockdown measures. Indeed, Johnson’s announcement that a ‘tougher’ tier system would be introduced from the 2 December emphasises that the four-week lockdown alone cannot ensure public safety. Nevertheless, as sacrifices continue to be made, many will look forward to the brief period of freedom over Christmas. The anticipation of a vaccine will likely sustain hope that more such freedoms and reunions between friends and family will soon be possible. 

Image: UK Prime Minister via Creative Commons

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