And so it begins again. I closed the book on my lockdown journals barely a month ago. Now – already – it’s time to start on the sequel. It’s not quite a second lockdown in the same sense, but it’s … well, something.
Time to put finger to keyboard again.
Tuesday 22nd September
Last week we had the ‘Rule of Six’, limiting gatherings to no more than six people. Today – one day short of six months after Boris Johnson announced a national coronavirus lockdown – he took to the nation’s screens again this evening to urge us to follow a new set of rules.
Even more so than in March, this second announcement came as little surprise. Government messaging urging people back to workplaces had suddenly gone quiet last week, signalling the latest in an innumerable series of U-turns. With case numbers rising not just in the UK but across much of Europe, something had to be done. And with winter fast approaching – the time of year when flu and other respiratory illnesses thrive – the dangers of an autumn/winter wave of coronavirus are significantly more threatening than the first spring/summer wave.
How appropriate that this pre-winter warning should come on the date of the autumnal equinox, when night becomes longer than day.
This isn’t a national lockdown on anywhere near the same scale as in March, though. In England, the key new restrictions are as follows:
- Pubs, bars and restaurants to close at 10pm and restricted to table service only
- People to work from home wherever possible
- Face masks now compulsory for bar staff and non-seated customers, shop workers and waiters
- Wedding guests numbers reduced from 30 to 15
- Plans to allow fans to return to sporting events paused
- ‘Rule of Six’ now applies to indoor team sports
- Fines for not wearing masks or following rules increased to £200 (from £100) for first offenders
In line with what is now standard government communications policy, these new rules were leaked to the media in advance. In his TV address, the Prime Minister avoided details altogether. Instead, he focussed on delivering what I assume was an attempt at a rousing Churchillian “let’s beat this together” speech.
It didn’t wash. At least, it didn’t with me.
It wasn’t so much that the words he spoke were bad. They weren’t that bad at all. Although using the colloquial term “a stitch in time saves nine” mid-speech did seem an odd choice.
(And, it seems, a confusing one that many didn’t understand. Google analytics confirmed a huge spike in searches for the term in the minutes after he used it. Not a smart move by a leader wanting to deliver a clear message to the general population. But then again, vague and confusing messaging is a hallmark of the Johnson government, isn’t it?)
Anyhow, I digress. The problem with Johnson’s speech was not its content but its context. Appealing for national unity off the back of a policy of finger-pointing and division seemed more than a little hypocritical. Attempting to shame rule-breakers after the lengths he went to in order to protect Dominic Cummings was laughable. Claiming decisiveness after the latest in a series of capricious U-turns lacked plausibility. (Don’t get me wrong here. I never expected any government to be perfect. But I did expect a degree of competence that has been sadly lacking throughout.)
It was less an exercise in leadership than showmanship. Lots of emphatic gestures, very little substance.
And herein lies the problem. Will Johnson’s words have made much difference? I’m dubious. His ardent fan-base didn’t need convincing anyway. People who think his government is terrible will do the right thing in spite of him rather than because of him. And those who don’t believe the rules apply to them or think it’s all a hoax anyway will continue on their merry way regardless.
But we are where we are. And, like it or lump it, the only way for us to mitigate the impact of a second wave is to protect both ourselves and others as much as we can. I just wish I had more – or indeed any – confidence in our political leaders to do more good than harm.
Save the economy or save lives?
September is different to March in so many ways. We know more about COVID-19 now. Vaccines under development look promising. We have learned some hard lessons, not least from the devastating way the virus swept like wildfire through care homes.
These are all positives. But there are negatives too.
The days ahead will become shorter and colder rather than longer and warmer. Case numbers are rising, but from a higher baseline than at the beginning of the first wave. And the economy has yet to recover from the battering it took first time around. A small rise in July barely starts to offset the 20% decline in the UK economy during the second quarter of 2020 – one of the worst performances of any major economy. World-beating, one might say.
Like a boxer who has been knocked down, the economy is now more susceptible to a second flurry of punches. The government borrowed deeply. It effectively mortgaged the future to rescue the present. The furlough scheme. The Nightingale hospitals. Eat Out to Help Out. The so-far calamitous test and trace programme.
Even so, many businesses have gone under and those which have survived continue to operate at less than full capacity. Jobs were lost despite the furlough scheme. Families were thrust into deep hardship due to lost earnings. The last thing they need is new restrictions that will keep people away from shops, restaurants and town centres. And yet that is what we need from a public health perspective to curtail the spread of the virus.
When it lands, the second punch will be devastating. More businesses will close, particularly ones dependent on physical footfall such as pubs, or who rely on the Christmas season. (Christmas may not be cancelled as such, but it certainly won’t be as extravagant as usual.) More jobs will go. The government will struggle to dig as deeply into its pockets second time around. There simply is no ‘magic money tree’, as former Prime Minister Theresa May once put it.
If we thought things were bad during the first lockdown, I fear we’ve barely scratched the surface. (And that’s before we even consider the impact of a no-deal Brexit.)
The bottom line? The new restrictions, if successful, will undoubtedly save people’s lives. But we may have to measure the cost in terms of people’s livelihoods.
Mental versus physical health
Even though the new restrictions are nowhere near as draconian as the March lockdown, this new scenario will be harder for many to cope with.
When we first entered lockdown, we believed it would only be a few short weeks. Everything would quickly return to normal and we could enjoy summer. Now, however, the timeframe that is being commonly mentioned is six months. It could be a little less; it could also be a lot more.
Short of a major change or medical breakthrough, I don’t see how it could be much less than six months. A vaccine won’t be ready for several months yet. It’s imperative that we negotiate the worst of winter to mitigate stresses on the NHS. There is no magical solution on the horizon. The fact that the government is even openly referencing ‘six months’ is an indication of how pessimistic the outlook is.
There is no short-term fix. We have a long winter ahead of us. Limited social contact. For many of us, continued working from home. For some, a return to shielding and self-quarantine at home. No Christmas parties.
We coped the first time with the surge of adrenaline that comes with sudden change. Even then, it was tough. Humans are creatures of habit. We crave the security of routine. But now, having barely had time to recharge our batteries and having had a brief reminder of what ‘normal’ feels like, it’s harder to go back again. It’s like a prisoner who has spent a month in solitary confinement, is allowed back out into the sun for a day, and is then thrown back in again. Captivity is harder after a taste of freedom.
Which is why we all have to take even more care of ourselves and others this time around. It won’t be easier having been through it once already. It will be harder. We have to accept that we will have down days. That there will be periods when we lack the energy or motivation to do even the most essential tasks. We will get more easily annoyed by those we love and we, in turn, will get on their nerves. This will be part of our new normal and it’s okay to accept that we won’t always be at our best.
At the beginning of the first lockdown I said that, while the short-term threat was to our physical health, the longer-term threat is to our mental health. I think that’s the case more than ever now. We have to find a way to cope together because we won’t be returning to ‘normal’ for quite a while. So it’s down to us to cut ourselves and others a little bit of slack.
Here we go again.
Previous ‘Life under lockdown’ entries