When Covid-19 began to spread like wildfire in the early months of 2020, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson played the danger of the virus down and resisted calls from experts to introduce restrictions that curbed transmission. This delay led to the UK having the highest death rate from the virus in Europe.
Fast forward two years and Mr Johnson is at it again, ditching a favourite line of his throughout the pandemic on the need to “follow the science”. He now plans to lift all restrictions as early as the end of February, including the requirement to self-isolate if you test positive for Covid-19. Free testing will be scrapped. The UK Health Security Agency has even announced that it will stop publishing case and death figures on the weekends, instead combining them with workday updates.
There is public and media speculation that the speed of Mr Johnson’s major decision has less to do with protecting health, and more to do with saving his premiership by distracting attention from scandals involving parties at his official residence during lockdowns, as well as by appeasing the right-wing of his party who are on the whole anti-restrictions.
The Johnson administration has enjoyed some success, particularly in the UK’s speedy vaccination drive. Still, since the start of the pandemic the government’s dominant message appears to have been the same, then: Covid-19 in the UK is all about the survival of the fittest. Yes, it has never been said. But aren’t actions, or a lack of them, becoming enough to demonstrate as much?
As a disabled person and a wheelchair user with muscular dystrophy and respiratory failure, I have always known and, sadly, become accustomed to being denied entry to venues due to access limitations. I have been rejected from jobs, and I have to battle to get simple rights that are taken for granted by many. I had accepted all these obstacles as part of life. I often remind myself that no human being has an easy path in this world, and that I have got it better than others.
Then Covid-19 came and changed everything. For the first month or so people played the kind and caring role but, as is so often the case, the natural “me-before-others” human instinct eventually kicks in. This paved the way for the many divisions that have occurred over the past two years, from masks to vaccines, restrictions to Covid-19 passports. This is how the myth of “we are all in this together” came to an end.
While many will rejoice at the lifting of restrictions, I, along with many of the 3.7 million people with a disability or health condition, will be fearful, insulted, angry and anxious as to what the days ahead hold for us.
I understand why people want a return to pre-virus days. So do disabled people. But the cost for them is much higher than the rest of society. We know we are at an increased risk from the virus, and we are also aware that care backlogs are going to remain vast even when the pandemic is over. Some of us might not survive that.
The situation is particularly bad for disabled women. Research conducted by the Office for National Statistics and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine shows that disabled women were nearly twice as likely to die from the virus than non-disabled women of the same age. These findings have been almost completely ignored by the mainstream media.
Fleur Perry, a law student and disability campaigner in the UK, believes that removing the restrictions while tens of thousands of people are catching Covid-19 every day and more than 100 per day are dying makes no sense at all. “The figures are going down, but we want them to keep going down. I'm worried for the safety of my family, my friends and myself if key measures such as isolation and testing are removed … I’ve not yet seen evidence that ongoing risks to disabled people have been given proper consideration when these decisions were being made.” Like me, Fleur believes we need to make sure that the post-pandemic world is a place where everyone can thrive and participate. As she states: “a future where we have a deadly disease un-contained is terrifying.”
With these important perspectives, facts and risks in mind, it is worth asking if the British people are as against restrictions as Mr Johnson assumes. A sign that they might not be is their frequent choice to go to the UAE on holiday, a country that has been consistent in its ongoing health measures and where mask-wearing is still mandatory. Indeed, it is often said that you can judge people by how they treat the most vulnerable in society. The Johnson government risks appearing as if it has disregarded the millions of disabled people who might feel vulnerable as the country re-opens, especially the ones who will still be advised to isolate.
This is why I believe that the UAE has struck the right balance, one of keeping itself open while also maintaining safety through necessary restrictions, particularly for the sake of the already-vulnerable. Beyond simple physical health, this also means disabled people feel valued and respected by wider society.