“Just the use of the words ‘Freedom Day’ upsets me,” says Natasha Coates, a 26-year-old from Nottinghamshire, who shielded for 14 months earlier in the pandemic. “What freedom is there for people like me? If cases continue to rise I will have go back into shielding, so if anything I am loosing freedom, not gaining it.”
Coates has autism and mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS), which causes regular symptoms of anaphylaxis. She was “terrified” by the announcements made during Boris Johnson’s press conference on Monday evening, in which he set out plans for the country’s grand unlocking in a fortnight’s time.
The prime minister confirmed that he intends to lift social distancing and face mask laws in England on July 19. The instruction to work from home where possible will also be scrapped, as will the “rule of six” inside private homes. Night clubs will reopen and large-scale events will not legally require certification. Staying Covid cautious will be left to personal discretion.
The message is clear: it’s time to get back to normal. But that’s impossible for many of the 14.1 million disabled people in the UK.
People with certain medical conditions can not have the coronavirus vaccine and there’s emerging evidence that the vaccines may not work as well for people with suppressed immune systems. It’s also worth remembering that no vaccine is 100% effective, and it is possible to become infected even after vaccination.
This is particularly concerning for the nation’s disabled community, who are among those hardest hit by the pandemic. Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows six in 10 of all those who’ve died from Covid were disabled people.
“I am scared,” says Coates. “I don’t want to become part of that statistic.”
Brogan Taylor, 28, from Northumberland, is also dreading the lifting of restrictions and says it’ll mean she’ll be forced to limit time outside once more. Taylor only returned to the supermarket in May for the first time since March 2020 and has been enjoying a slice or “normality”. But, she says, she won’t feel safe to do that once face masks are no longer mandatory.
“It feels like the Hunger Games and we just have to endure it,” says Taylor, who is immunocompromised. “The clinically extremely vulnerable have been forgotten (again) which hurts, considering we spent our 2020 not leaving our front doors and now it’s like ‘good luck to you’.
“There’s a large group of immunocompromised people like me for whom the vaccine isn’t as effective and no one seems to be taking action or considering us. I feel disposable.”
Politicians have said the end of lockdown restrictions will almost certainly lead to cases rising, but on Tuesday, the new health secretary Sajid Javid told BBC Breakfast the country will be entering “uncharted territory,” admitting nobody really knows how bad things will get. One estimate is 100,000 cases a day.
The uncertainty is anxiety-inducing for many, including 33-year-old disability campaigner Shani Dhanda, who has a rare genetic condition which means she has a low immune system and a reduced lung capacity.
“Now the world is opening without restrictions, I feel like I don’t know how or where I’ll be able to go safely,” she says. “I feel that the end of restrictions is freedom for the majority, but not people who are clinically vulnerable.”
Journalist and disability activist Rachel Charlton-Dailey shares her concerns. “I’ve spent the last year and a bit fighting for my own safety and that of other disabled people, while many just flout the rules or treat it like they’re being persecuted for being asked to care about others,” the 32-year-old, from South Tyneside, says.
“I’m scared that more disabled people are going to die, and if not we’re all going to be too scared to leave our homes. And nobody cares. As long as they can go to the pub.”
Dr Hannah Barham-Brown, a 33-year-old Leeds-based GP trainee, has “some increased anxiety” about July 19, but she’s double jabbed and not immunosuppressed.
“I’m very worried about the welfare of my disabled friends who aren’t so fortunate,” she says. “As a doctor, I’m very worried about the rising numbers of cases on top of having to catch up with a lot of cases that we haven’t been able to manage during Covid - people may not be getting so sick, but the NHS (and particularly General Practice where I work) is under incredible pressure, and staff are exhausted.”
Those who were originally identified as extremely clinically vulnerable to coronavirus have now been offered two vaccines, but this does not apply to all disabled people.
Selina Kaurtee, who’s a brand ambassador for Models of Diversity, has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which is a connective tissue disorder with related heart problems. However, she wasn’t classified as “vulnerable” so has only recently had her first vaccine. The 29-year-old, from London, thinks the “freedom day” rhetoric is insensitive to disabled people, whether they’re clinically vulnerable or not.
“Lockdown, as the British public experienced, is just every day life for many of those with disabilities,” she says. “One positive is that people have been more understanding of those with disabilities during the pandemic. They’ve understood what it’s like not being able to leave the house, having to plan every last detail before you can do something, companies have allowed people to work from home and it’s shown people don’t necessarily need to be in an office environment to get their job done, but my worry is that once people have experienced their ‘freedom,’ they’ll forget all of these things and nothing will change for the disabled community.”
Victoria Jenkins, founder of the adaptive clothing line Unhidden, agrees, and is also worried about receiving negative reactions from others if she continues to wear a mask or cancels plans in busy, indoor settings.
“As has been the case throughout the pandemic, people with disabilities and the elderly are being forgotten and left behind – we are once again considered acceptable collateral damage to opening the economy,” the 35-year-old Londoner says.
“I completely understand everyones’ eagerness to return to some semblance of normal life, but when it comes at the expense of others – or as seems more the case so that money can be made – overall it is leaving me feeling that the general public and corporations have not changed in their attitude to this group when it had felt like progress was being made.”
Some are tentatively looking forward to restrictions relaxing. Kam Kaur, 37, from Birmingham, thinks returning to the office once or twice a week will boost her wellbeing, and she’s looking forward to spending time with her family indoors more easily.
“One coping mechanism I’ve been applying is to not force myself into accepting every invite,” she says. “I know it’s okay to take time to readjust.”
But for many individuals we spoke to – and two leading disability charities – it’s hard to look at the bright side, when a whole community of people were ignored in Monday’s press conference.
“Disabled people have been forgotten throughout the pandemic,” says Jessica Leigh, campaigns manager at disability equality charity Scope.
“The government’s decision to lift restrictions leaves some clinically extremely vulnerable people or those not yet vaccinated at the mercy of others’ goodwill. It does little to reassure disabled people that their needs, and the sacrifices they’ve made, are being considered by government in these plans.
“There’s been no mention of people who are high risk because they either cannot have the vaccine, or who have conditions where the vaccine won’t be as effective such as those who are immunocompromised. Many disabled people will be worried that plans to remove all restrictions are gambling with their lives.”
There needs to be more clarity around the support that disabled people will be offered as England unlocks, adds Phillip Anderson, head of policy at the MS Society.
“The prime minister has failed to make clear how those most at risk will be supported to stay safe,” he says. “It is imperative the government ensures vulnerable people are not pressured to stop working from home, as well as ensuring they can get food and medical care without facing crowded shops or hospitals unnecessarily.
“Clinically extremely vulnerable people should also be able to view the most up-to-date assessment of risks to give them much-needed reassurance that this next phase will be safe for them.”
HuffPost UK has contacted the Department of Health and Social Care for a response to the concerns raised in this article and will update this article when we receive one. For people like Natasha Coates, there’s still one unanswered question: would it really be so hard to keep some of the lockdown restrictions?
“I appreciate that wearing a mask may be uncomfortable, but I can assure you it’s not as uncomfortable as the thousands of people mourning the death of a loved one that was preventable,” she says. “As a disabled person, I don’t feel like the government cares about us at all.”