It’s now 11 months since we first entered lockdown and there’s no doubt the strain is starting to show on everybody. So this week’s announcement of the UK government’s roadmap out of lockdown came at a welcome moment.
But, in giving us all hope, will it raise expectations too high? And if things don’t go according to plan, will we find ourselves back where we started (or worse), with the prospect of a summer of ongoing restrictions?
Wednesday 10th February
As half-term approaches, everyone is tired, bored and grumpy. Toby and Kara are definitely missing being around their teachers and classmates in school. Even Isaac, who has a well established school-day routine via Microsoft Teams and spends lots of additional time socialising or playing games with his schoolmates, is struggling.
All three of them are constantly on a hair-trigger. Barely 30 minutes passes without a descent into bickering, usually over something innocuous. They’re going to be even worse next week when they don’t have any actual school work to do or structure to their days.
Friday 12th February
We took part in a virtual wine and cheese evening today. Obviously, it’s no substitute for being there in the same place together, but actually it was pretty good.
Over the past year, we’ve introduced ourselves to online quizzes, gaming, escape rooms and now this. Sure, a lot of this is temporary and will go away whenever we finally return to ‘normal’. But it has certainly fuelled the kids’ love of quizzes, and if only that remains afterwards that will still be a big positive.
Saturday 13th February
Isaac joined me for a drive this afternoon.
I think my relationship with our eldest has suffered more than any other during the pandemic. Turning 13 is challenging for anyone at any time, let alone this past year. Paradoxically, spending so much more time in each other’s orbits has, I think, made it more difficult for us to communicate. It’s hard when all five of us are in the house together practically all day. And the inevitable boredom and tetchiness has caused more friction between us two than perhaps any other combination in the house. While he’s now barely 1cm shorter than me and will no doubt surpass me by summer, in every other respect we’ve struggled to see eye-to-eye.
So it was nice to have some extended one-to-one time to just have a proper, rambling chat about life and stuff. And nicer still that he asked if we could continue on a bit longer rather than just going straight home. 45 minutes in the car isn’t going to magically repair the close bond we used to have when he was younger. But it’s a start.
Sunday 14th February
Valentine’s Day. But it’s also the first weekend of Chinese New Year. (New Year’s Day was on Friday.)
We arranged a Zoom call with my family and relatives in Malaysia this morning: 13 of us across five locations. Chinese New Year is all about family. And while we’ve become accustomed to our lockdown in the UK, hearing about all the restrictions in Malaysia – a country with a population nearly half that of the UK but with fewer than 1,000 Covid deaths – was heartbreaking. Normally the streets, houses and restaurants of Malaysia’s cities and towns would be full of noise and colour and families. But not this year.
Even more so than Christmas, it really hit home today just how much the pandemic is stripping us of habits and traditions we used to take for granted. In Malaysia and other Asian countries, people would return to family homes from far and wide for the traditional New Year’s Eve reunion dinner: 10, 20, 30 people or more coming back together. This year, gatherings were restricted to six people and long-distance travel is out of the equation for many.
Chinese New Year is always a time of happiness and celebration. But not this year.
Thursday 18th February
I think I can quite conclusively say at this point that half-term has not been much fun. For any of us.
Sunday 21st/Monday 22nd February
News started to circulate last night (Sunday) that all children – not just primaries and secondary exam years – in England will return to schools on March 8th. This is an unexpected and bold move.
Coming out of a dreary half-term week, I think the announcement is a welcome relief to many exhausted parents. I’m an advocate of schools returning fully as soon as it’s safe to do so – kids and parents alike need it more than ever – but it also feels like we’re still a few weeks away from that ‘safe enough’ moment.
Why so early? And why send everyone back?
Having had the chance to think about this today, I can see the seductive logic of March 8th. It’s three weeks before the Easter holidays, which will provide a natural two-week circuit-breaker. Three weeks is long enough to gather mass data to see if the inevitable rise in community transmission can be sufficiently offset by the benefits of the vaccination programme. And then we have the Easter holiday to determine what should happen next. Will it be safe to allow schools to continue? Could the government’s roadmap to reopening the country then move on to the next step?
There’s a big element of ‘we don’t know if we don’t try’ about this. If we don’t do it in that week, we will not have another natural circuit-breaker until half-term in late May – ages away and probably not long enough – or the summer holidays. In an ideal world, we would get case numbers and deaths a little more under control first. But the calendar is what it is, so I can see the logic.
However, it is a huge gamble and I don’t think any of us can really know how it will pan out. (Except on social media, where of course everyone knows for sure.) If it works, the government will be heroes and it will further underline the importance of the UK’s quick vaccine rollout, without which this scenario would be impossible. It’s an enticing prospect. I imagine thousands of people will have been rushing to book their holidays after hearing the news.
If it doesn’t work, though, we could be facing thousands more deaths, a fourth lockdown and the cancellation of any summer holiday plans.
I’m glad this isn’t a decision I had to make!
I’m fearful that we’re still 3-4 weeks away from the optimum time to unlock, but equally I do recognise the potential opportunity afforded by taking action now. Even so, it’s like a gambler who won’t play the long game and decides to gamble everything on a single roll of the dice. Only here the stakes are people’s lives and livelihoods.
I suspect there is no middle ground here, either in terms of people’s attitudes or the potential outcomes. For or against? Triumph or disaster? Only time will tell. Our government hasn’t had a good track record of decision-making so far – at least not until the vaccination rollout. But that’s one excellent decision stacked against a slew of questionable ones. Let’s not forget this is the same government who assured us it was safe for schools to go back one day, only to announce a national lockdown 24 hours later. That was just seven weeks ago.
So, yes, I have my doubts. But I hope I’m proven wrong.
The government’s messaging here remains a bit too bullish for my liking, although Boris Johnson did take care to sound a note of caution in his announcement this time. For once, the Prime Minister was clear that 21st June represented the earliest possible date by which all restrictions could be lifted. But, as ever, the mainstream media have taken what was carefully laid out as possible, best-case timings and spun them as hard deadlines. (Or, in the case of the Daily Mail, questioned why we need to wait even that long.)
Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to have hope; it’s uplifting. But I think it’s also dangerous to raise expectations and play down the risks to the point where we’re practically denying they even exist. There’s a very real danger that positivity can easily turn into complacency. Maybe we are on the homeward stretch now. But to expect that it’s all downhill from hereon in? No. Not yet.
So, yet again, we are a nation divided. Some people see these latest developments as a cause for celebration, confident the end is in sight. For others, the prospect of relaxed restrictions provokes rising stress and fear. It’s not about being right or wrong here, and I won’t criticise or mock people who have a diametrically opposed view of what they expect to happen over the coming weeks. None of us knows for sure. Now is not the time to shout down those who hold a different opinion. Now more than ever is the time for us to pull together rather than sow further division.
I’ll be hoping for the best, but I’ll still be bracing myself for the worst. Fingers crossed. I think we’re going to need all the luck we can get.
Previous ‘Life under lockdown’ entries