A British Lesson in Freedom?

As an American, when I think of the United Kingdom, “defender of liberty” doesn’t come to mind. From the Stamp Act to the Corn Laws, the British do not have a history of tolerance for individual freedom. When I arrived in the country for my study abroad term at Oxford University this semester, I found myself in for a lesson on liberty that Michigan has yet to learn. 

Throughout the United Kingdom, most COVID-19 restrictions were lifted courtesy of Boris Johnson’s mid-July announcement.  I didn’t believe that this would change anything at first; while some governors in the U.S. reopened state economies, individual counties retained the power to impose economic and behavioral limitations in the fight against COVID-19. I should have believed it: at Oxford, both masks and vaccinations are optional, even for the international students. They’re both strongly encouraged but never mandatory; the University expects students to act with respect and within their comfort zones. 

I should have believed it: at Oxford, both masks and vaccinations are optional, even for the international students. They’re both strongly encouraged but never mandatory; the University expects students to act with respect and within their comfort zones. 

Here at Hertford College, the college under which I study out of all 32 colleges at Oxford, masking occurs at a level of individual preference.  While none of my instructors wear them, I have a few peers who are asthmatic and feel most comfortable wearing a mask all of the time. This is how COVID-19 guidelines should work: those who feel particularly vulnerable to the virus should continue masking as they see fit without fear of judgment. Those of us who are fully vaccinated and, perhaps, COVID-19 survivors deserve the individual freedom of choice to wear or not wear a mask.   

I hear stories of Michigan students receiving countless emails about COVID-positive individuals in their classes within the first week of class, a policy that has since been abandoned. To mandate masks in socially distanced classrooms but allow 110,000 people to occupy the Big House every weekend sounds hypocritical, something that I would expect from a pretentious university like Oxford. It appears that the Prime Minister is offering a lesson in personal freedom, true to his platform.

To mandate masks in socially distanced classrooms but allow 110,000 people to occupy the Big House every weekend sounds hypocritical, something that I would expect from a pretentious university like Oxford.

Of course, it is no use comparing restrictions without looking at the status of COVID-19 in both areas. As restrictions on my behavior decreased when I left Ann Arbor and entered Oxford, COVID rates rose.  While Washtenaw County is seeing a rate of 147.7 cases per 100,000 residents, Oxfordshire County has a rate of 322.2 per 100,000. It is not as if COVID is not a threat here just as it is in Ann Arbor- and the signs for masking and hand washing everywhere remind students constantly that a virus is among us. 

One of the most striking statements Oxford has made is that they are “committed to maintaining the highest standards of education regardless of the impact of the pandemic.” Oxford is following government guidelines to a T, but those are allowing the classic tutorial system of one professor educating one to three students in a small discussion group to return.  Life here has returned practically to normalcy.

One of the most striking statements Oxford has made is that they are “committed to maintaining the highest standards of education regardless of the impact of the pandemic.”

Last week, I went to a nightclub with a few friends as well as countless pubs and bars.  Restaurants, shops, classes, dining halls, and libraries are open to full capacity as well, with no masking; it’s a libertarian paradise on this side of the pond. The feeling of normalcy is refreshing. University of Michigan students can keep their vaccine and mask mandates- while I’m abroad, I’ll enjoy the personal freedom guaranteed to me. Oh, and the lower drinking age.

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About Lindsay Keiser

Lindsay Keiser is a sophomore in LSA studying political science and interdisciplinary astronomy. She is also the international section editor for the Michigan Journal of Political Science as well as an avid runner.