Excited, scared, relieved, frustrated, anxious. These are just some of the emotions the nation is feeling today, as England unlocks fully for the first time in almost 18 months.
Throughout the pandemic, HuffPost UK has tracked the mood of the nation with our How Are You Feeling? project, where we’ve invited readers to share their experiences of the changing world we’re living in.
Now, as social distancing and face mask laws are dropped across most of the country, it seems we’re more divided than we’ve been during any other point in the past year and a half. While some are jumping for joy at so-called “freedom-day,” others worry that the removal of restrictions will force them back inside.
And people’s vaccination status is having a big impact on how they feel.
Angela Burgess, a 56-year-old originally from Stockport, says she “can’t wait” to return to normal.
“I feel it is time to see how we get on with no restrictions. I am double jabbed as are most of my family,” she says. “I am beginning to think the cure is worse than the problem. I know some people are feeling nervous, but the longer it goes on, the more our society is affected. People will be scared to do what was normal only 18 months ago.”
But with cases of the Delta variant continuing to rise, several people under the age of 30 got in touch to say they think the unlocking has come too soon, given they’ve only been able to access one vaccination.
Sarah Williams, 27, from Birmingham, has another four weeks to wait until she can have her second jab.
“Honestly, it feels like going out and about is even more of a threat to me now,” she says. “I wish the government had at least waited until eight weeks after under 30s could start getting their second jab, to give us a chance.”
And Evelyn Richards, 23, from South London, feels as though her age group is “being totally left behind”.
“I still get shaky and jumpy when someone gets too close to me during my grocery shopping – and yet somehow I’m supposedly meant to be fine getting on a packed tube twice a day,” she says. “It’s all very overwhelming.”
Aiysha Younas, 25, from Manchester, says the unlocking is an unfair way to repay young people, who sacrificed their social lives to keep others safe earlier in the pandemic. “It feels like our safety isn’t a concern,” she says.
Then there are those who cannot have the vaccine for medical reasons, or people with suppressed immune systems, for whom it may be less effective.
Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows six in 10 of all those who’ve died from Covid were disabled people – and we know no vaccine is 100% effective – leaving many with disabilities worrying they’ll be forced to shield again.
“It feels like the Hunger Games and we just have to endure it,” says Brogan Taylor, a 28-year-old from Northumberland, who is immunocompromised. “No one seems to be taking action or considering us. I feel disposable.”
While vaccine take up is high, there are still parts of the UK with worrying levels of vaccine hesitancy. There are also some people who haven’t yet been able to access their jab for practical reasons.
Johnny Luk has been working abroad, so he’s not yet got his vaccine although he’s “very keen to do so”. He’s nervous about returning to the UK in the same week as England unlocks – despite the fact he’ll have 10 days in a quarantine hotel. “After I leave the hotel, given the high Covid infection rate, I am going to resist meeting my new niece and will effectively self-isolate at home and play it really safe for the first half of August,” says the 30-year-old, from London.
There have been warnings that the unlocking will create “the perfect storm” for pregnant women, with research suggesting those with symptoms of Covid are twice as likely to have their baby early, with all the accompanying risks that prematurity brings. Women who tested positive with Covid at the time of birth were also more likely to develop pre-eclampsia, need an emergency caesarean and had higher rates of stillbirth.
The actual increases remain low, but it’s still “terrifying” for mums-to-be like Alex Delaney, who is 24 weeks pregnant. As the rest of England unlocks, she’s preparing for a summer inside and won’t be going to restaurants or shops while cases continue to rise.
“I’m absolutely terrified of anything happening to my baby. It’s causing me huge anxiety,” says the 37-year-old, from London. “Very sadly, I lost my husband three-and-a-half years ago. I have been lucky enough to find a new partner to have a family with. But the idea of getting Covid and the illness causing my baby to be born early or to be stillborn is more than most people could bear, and I’ve been through so much already, so I’m being extremely careful. ”
Emotions are also mixed among the country’s business owners, many of whom have struggled financially while the country has been locked down.
Victoria Carson, a 42-year-old milliner based in Essex, is “extremely for the unlocking” and says she welcomed today with “a huge sigh of relief”. Her business making hats and headpieces relies on events, such as weddings and races. She lost around 90% of her recurring business during the pandemic, without accounting for expected growth.
“Since March 2020 my business was effectively shut,” she says. “Although mostly open, the clients stopped coming, understandably, as they had nowhere to go. It was and has been extremely testing.”
Although times are still uncertain, she’s “most definitely excited” for an unlocked future. In contrast, Lauren Reading, who runs a small restaurant in Bournemouth, says her overwhelming emotion is “apprehension”.
“I feel like the government have handed over the all risk directly to me,” says the 41-year-old. “Many of my staff are young and have only had one or no vaccine yet. I feel so responsible for their safety at work, plus we simply can’t afford to close should anyone of them contract covid and we all have to isolate (again!).
“I feel such a sense of duty to protect our customers, so we will continue to wear our visors and practise our Covid-safe methods, until I feel more confident about the number of cases.”
Monday marks the return of large events without social distancing, but some business owners are sceptical about how this will actually work in practice – and what it means for their livelihoods.
Amber Leach, a 39-year-old wedding photographer based in Devon, was initially excited by the ‘freedom day’ announcement, but she’s since realised it will not be business as usual. Her whole family is now self-isolating after her daughter tested positive for Covid. “I wonder if things will actually change,” she says. “I’ve had to reschedule four photoshoots this week alone.”
Nina Kamal, 34, who owns a Cambridgeshire-based wedding cake company, also says the run-up to unlocking has been “more stressful” than she imagined. She specialises in creating big cakes for big weddings, therefore increasing her exposure to the virus and the possibility of having to self-isolate.
“With an average of four weddings a week and thousands of pounds to refund, the thought of isolating is making us extremely anxious,” she says.
“We have been calling for an ease of restrictions on weddings so our couples can have the day of their dreams, however, the way things have been abruptly and fully reopened with no financial insurance is making us have to choose between protecting people’s lives and making ends meet.”
It’s unsurprising people have such mixed views about about unlocking, as this is what Lee Chambers, a 36-year-old psychologist based in Preston, Lancashire, has heard among his clients.
“I’ve seen many of my clients really searching for some stability and certainty given the continual changes and mixed messaging we have been subjected to over the past year,” he says.
“For most of them, ‘freedom day’ really represents a flag in the sand in terms of them regaining more control over their lives and social situations, which is something that has been challenging for our mental wellbeing.”
Yet other clients are worried about the unlocking, particularly those who’ve already shielded and been cut off from family during the pandemic. It’s for this reason that Chambers says he feels personally “torn”.
“I do feel gaining a sense of normality, with people moving back into social situations and differing environments, at their own pace, to be a good thing for us as human beings and as a nation collectively. But this is balanced against the reality that we will all be more hyperaware of the threat of Covid and it’s still present, and is by it’s very nature highly contagious,” he says.
“From my perspective, those who are vulnerable will be put at an increased risk for the benefit of the majority. And a big issue I do have is around the messaging, as we have so many freedoms that have not been taken away, it’s almost creating this expectation and anticipation that as the clock strikes midnight everything has changed and we are back to freedom, when in reality it’s another step on this pandemic journey.”
Of course, there is the chance that the legal changes won’t necessarily alter our day-to-day lives. The government’s strategy is based upon handing choice back to the people – and the majority of people we spoke to said they will continue to wear masks and socially distance where they can.
Several people, including Nell Mead, a 43-year-old London-based physiotherapist, got in touch to say that ‘Freedom Day’ is just another day. She’ll still wear a mask at work and masks will continue to be mandatory on the Tube journey she makes into her private practice each day.
“Although I’m fully vaccinated with Pfizer and have been for a while, I’m also very aware that the delta variant is highly transmissible through aerosols and contact – and because I see quite a few medically-vulnerable people through my work, I plan to continue wearing a mask in enclosed, highly populated areas such as shops, and to continue with the regular hand-washing routines,” she says. “I can’t see my life changing much on ‘freedom day.’”
Covid-19 is more than a news story – it has changed every aspect of life in the UK. We are following how Britain is experiencing this crisis, the different stages of collective emotion, reaction and resilience. You can tell us how you are feeling and find further advice and resources here.