Why I'm not celebrating 'freedom day' - a social worker's perspective
Angela Meidel believes the lifting of restrictions on 19 July is a dangerous disregard for the principles of fairness and equal opportunity
Published by Professional Social Work magazine - 15 July, 2021
During the COVID-19 pandemic I have worked both as a practice manager in adult social care and – following my retirement in autumn 2020 – as an independent practice educator supporting social work students on placement.
As such, I have experienced first-hand the challenges presented by the pandemic for staff, students and the vulnerable people we support. I have observed the impact of remote working on individuals' emotional wellbeing and the severe detrimental effects of lockdown measures on vulnerable adults.
I have been heartened by the positive and proactive response of my team and departmental colleagues to the challenges presented by the pandemic and their strong commitment to supporting our service users throughout.
I was also impressed how my social work students managed to successfully navigate their placements while missing out on the benefits of working alongside colleagues in the office and enjoying the mutual support and camaraderie that I feel is so special in our line of work and has sustained me throughout my career.
Like everybody else, I have dreamt of the day when things can go back to normal. However, now that freedom day has been announced I am unable to rejoice as I had hoped. I do welcome the further lifting of restrictions in acknowledgement of the necessity to achieve a balance between managing the threat posed by the virus and severe problems caused by restrictions.
However, I am shocked by the decision to lift all restrictions at once which leaves us with vaccination as our sole defence against a virulent form of the virus which is spreading through our country at accelerating speed.
As a social worker, I am familiar with the principles of risk assessment and very much appreciate that control measures should be used in the least restrictive way possible. I acknowledge the need to open up all businesses and extend social contact, which will provide a much-needed boost to our economy and overall wellbeing.
However, I am astonished about the decision to cease the legal requirement for measures like face coverings which cause little additional harm and have been proven to make considerable contributions to infection control. I have always supported the principles of individual autonomy and independence as promoted through our Social Work Code of Ethics.
However, the code also states that these freedoms should be balanced with the rights and safety of others.
In all civilised societies, these principles are enshrined within the legal framework that protects everyone by maintaining the health and safety of individuals and communities. Leaving the protection of others to each individual's choice is in my view both reckless and dangerous and not applied to other similar areas such as legally enforceable traffic rules or health and safety regulations in the workplace, as well as many other aspects of individual behaviour that potentially causes harm to others.
As a social worker, I am especially concerned how the proposed lifting of all restrictions will affect those in our community who are most vulnerable to the virus.
I am impressed with the speed and success of the vaccine roll-out and am extremely grateful to our brilliant scientists as well as our dedicated NHS staff and volunteers who made it all possible. However, it is clear that vaccines don't provide 100 per cent protection and are less effective for some of those who have certain disabilities and underlying health conditions.
There are also people who are not able to tolerate the vaccine. And for these and other members of our society who remain vulnerable to the virus (which also includes those who have not been fully vaccinated), freedom day will mean heightened anxiety, increased social isolation and exclusion and crucially they will also be forced to choose between their own safety and engaging in necessary tasks and social interactions.
I recently heard a testimony by a young woman who has a compromised immune system and is extremely worried how she will be able to keep herself safe when sharing busy environments with others who choose not to wear face coverings. She said she would avoid venues like restaurants but still needs to do her shopping, use public transport and attend hospital appointments.
What struck me was her acceptance of having to avoid activities that most of us value and take for granted. The proposed lifting of all restrictions effectively excludes groups of our society from the enjoyment of new freedoms which in my view represents a complete disregard for the principles of fairness and equal opportunity.
Those who remain more vulnerable to the virus are left to rely solely on the good will of their fellow citizens, employers and service providers. I believe this is dangerous and negligent.
The argument that everybody will do the right thing and proceed with caution and consideration for others is sadly not confirmed by my own experience since the information about the lifting of restrictions was first touted. When I recently attended two different concert venues (that advertised Covid measures would be observed), I was shocked to find that most of the audience and some of the organisers failed to comply with mandatory rules on face coverings.
I therefore feel that it would be reasonable to suspect that adherence to infection control measures would decline even further once they are no longer legally binding and enforceable.
It is also clear that the new freedoms will not extend to our exhausted health and social care workers (to whom we owe so much) who still have to wear PPE when working with an increasing number of people infected with Covid-19, and continue to face risks to their own health and their lives.
I fully accept that we have to learn to live with the virus but I do not understand why infection control measures that provide considerable benefits at comparatively little cost to the economy and our wellbeing will no longer be legally binding. I am concerned that leaving decisions to individuals, employers and service providers will cause confusion, conflict, division and potentially detrimental outcomes for our health.
It appears as if we have all been entered into a mega-experiment without clear guidance and with an uncertain outcome.
I do expect that many will do their best to protect themselves and others; however I fear that in the absence of strong leadership we could hurtle towards a new phase in the pandemic from which we may take a long time to recover and which will, as previously, adversely affect those in our society who are most vulnerable and disadvantaged.