February 23, 2022, by Brigitte Nerlich

Lockdown, freedom and responsibility

Two years ago, we learned a new word: ‘lockdown’. This was in fact an old word which acquired a new meaning during the Covid-19 pandemic. That new meaning gradually changed over time. Now ‘lockdown’ has more or less lost its meaning and just stands for something to be avoided at all cost or something that threatens our freedom as citizens. How did this come about?

The meanings of lockdown

Originally the word ‘lockdown’ meant, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “The confinement of prisoners to their cells for an extended period of time, usually as a security measure following a disturbance”. Or, according to an article studying semantic change during the early pandemic: “a prison protocol used to block people, information or cargo from leaving an area. When put under a full lockdown people are not allowed to move and may not enter or exit a building or rooms within the said building or area.”

Lockdown also had a secondary meaning which came to the fore in the pandemic, namely: according to the Cambridge Dictionary: “a period of time in which people are not allowed to leave their homes or travel freely, because of a dangerous disease” Or, according to the Collins Dictionary: “If there is a lockdown, people must stay at home unless they need to go out for certain reasons, such as going to work, buying food, or taking exercise.”

Lockdown in England

The United Kingdom went into a national lockdown of this type on 23 March 2020. Such a lockdown, as a general cessation of movement, was a radical health protection measure intended to break the chain of infection of a deadly disease. This was called for at a time when there were no vaccines or anti-viral medicines available.

This state of affairs lasted in various attenuated shapes and forms until 19 July 2021, our first so-called ‘freedom day’. Over time, vaccines and anti-virals have been invented and administered but the disease is still circulating widely. So, some legal health protection measures stayed in place – until this week (with variations amongst the UK nations). These were:

  • “people who develop Covid symptoms or test positive must self-isolate for 10 days (or five full days following two negative lateral flow test results)
  • venues can choose to ask people to show an NHS Covid Pass
  • face coverings are still required in health and care settings, including hospitals, GP surgeries and pharmacies
  • some shops have asked customers to keep wearing face coverings and they are required on public transport in London
  • in some circumstances, local authorities can recommend face coverings in the communal areas of schools”.

This was all there was in terms of public health and disease management – not a lot really. Despite this, people, especially politicians and some journalists, continued to talk about ‘lockdown’, using the term ‘continued lockdown’ even at end of February this year. Lockdown came to be associated with restriction rather than with health protection/disease prevention. The term gradually came to be used to protest against any remaining protective measures or mitigations. As Stephen Reicher has said: “We thereby create a situation in which the rhetoric of ‘removing restrictions’ creates a reality in which restrictions are increased for those who are not privileged”

This week the government ‘lifted’ even these simple protective measures for England – as reported widely in the press (‘lifted’ meaning turned from legal requirements to advice). This announcement has been greeted as ‘ultimate freedom day’ by some, as a final lifting of what is generally and wrongly called ‘lockdown’ restrictions and as the end to ‘lockdown’. As the MailOnline declared on 19 February: “Thursday [24 February] is Freedom Day! Boris Johnson prepares to lift lockdown restrictions once and for all next week in his ‘Living with Covid Plan’”.

This has now happened with only weak protests from scientific advisors calling upon citizens to continue using health protection measures like isolation, ventilation, and masks. According to Boris Johnson (who no longer mentions such measures): “’We need to learn to live with this virus and continue to protect ourselves without restricting our freedoms.” (The full plan can be found here) The emphasis is on people showing personal responsibility for protecting themselves, not others.

However, living (responsibly!) with covid will soon happen in the dark, as free mass testing for covid will end on 1 April. Affluent people will still be able to buy tests and, thus, behave responsibly, if they so choose. Many will not be able to do that, which means that all sorts of vulnerable and high-risk people, including the immunosuppressed, will live with the virus in a very different way compared to the rest of the population – namely with a blindfold round their eyes and a sword of Damocles over their head, never knowing whether the person they are interacting with might have covid or not.

How the lockdown changed its spots

Over time lockdown seems to have undergone several shifts in meaning.

Lockdown mark 1: A word used for emergency situations such as riots in prisons, school shootings and so on.

Lockdown mark 2: Here we are dealing with a national lockdown as an emergency public health protection measure that restricts movement in order to deal with a deadly disease when no other public health measures are available. The government acts responsibly in order to protect the health of the nation. Scientific evidence is used.

Lockdown mark 3: Here we are dealing with what I call rhetorical lockdown. The nation is no longer in lockdown mark 2, but some public health protection measures are still responsibly maintained and some responsibility is allocated to citizens. However, the word ‘lockdown’ is used widely to refer to pragmatic public health protection measures. The word becomes an antonym to ‘freedom’ of whatever kind and a synonym for restrictions of any kind. Government is gradually shifting responsibility to individuals. Scientific evidence, especially regarding dangers posed by new variants and dangers to the vulnerable and their freedoms, is, it seems, sidelined.

Lockdown mark 4: Here we are dealing with lockdown by stealth (with some similarities to lockdown mark 1). There is no longer a national lockdown, nor is there any longer a need for rhetorical lockdown. We now have to supposedly ‘live with covid’, which means lockdown by stealth for many who are poor and vulnerable. Scientific evidence is difficult to find. As somebody aptly said on Twitter: “We have gone from ignoring the science to pretending the science doesn’t even exist.” Just like reality and truth, by the way.

Lockdown, freedom and responsibility

With this we come to freedom and responsibility. Freedom is great but not at the expense of other people. Freedom comes with responsibility, especially during a pandemic. As Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility.” That responsibility includes protecting others, especially the vulnerable.

I really hope that each of us, using our individual responsibility and freedom of choice, will do our best to reduce the risks to the vulnerable/high-risk posed by covid, risks that, in reality, only responsible government actions can reduce, nationally and internationally. Working together, individually and collectively, it “is perfectly possible to protect vulnerable people without restricting others”, as a CEO of Blood Cancer UK said on Twitter. Keeping some protective measures in place until the pandemic is over is not ‘lockdown’, but abandoning all protective measures means lockdown for the most vulnerable.

Image: Pixabay


Posted in coronavirusinfectious diseasesLanguagerisk