And just like that, our journey out of lockdown came to a juddering halt. Amid growing concerns about the spread of the Delta variant, the UK hit pause on its “cautious but irreversible” roadmap back to normality.
We now stand at a key inflection point. Covid case numbers are rising, which warrants caution. But the public’s tolerance of lockdown, which has been eroding steadily for several months, is now wearing dangerously thin. We’ve reacquired a taste for normal, unrestricted (or, at least, less restricted) activities. To stop with the finish line practically within touching distance may prove to be a defining moment in a pandemic that some (mistakenly) thought was all over bar the shouting.
Here are some of the ‘normal’ things we’ve been getting up to over the past two weeks, and my reflections on where we go next.
Wednesday 2nd June
We went to Legoland today to try out the brand-new Flight of the Sky Lion ride. Our experience was very different to Alton Towers last weekend.
Legoland is a much more compact space, which means it inevitably feels more packed and maintaining social distancing – whether in queues or just walking around – is more difficult. There were still plenty of people wearing masks even outdoors, but while we’ve already booked another trip to Alton Towers, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to return here any time soon.
Thursday 3rd June
Kara had one of her best friends over for a sleepover this evening. It’s been ages since we were last able to do something like this. She’s a sociable beast, so the enforced separations we endured during lockdown hit her particularly hard.
I think this was the most excited I’ve seen her in a very long time. It’s lovely to see.
Friday 4th June
I drove Isaac into London to meet up with a friend and then headed off to do a bit of shopping myself. In doing so, I ticked off three notable milestones. My first meal inside a restaurant since October last year. The first time I’ve been on the London Underground since February 2020. And my first visit to a shopping centre – in this case, Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush – since last summer.
A big day, all in all.
What did I take out of today? Firstly, eating indoors in a restaurant barely registered on my anxiety-o-meter. I’d have probably been a bit more twitchy if it had been more full, but eating in a half-full restaurant felt positively relaxed.
On the tube and in Westfield, it was notable how many people weren’t wearing face coverings, though. It was a small minority – fewer than 10% – but still enough to be more than the odd exception. It’s clear that the progressive lifting of restrictions combined with the improved weather (although it was tipping down today) has emboldened a growing number of people – and perhaps bred a degree of complacency?
Sunday 6th June
A big day: the first time my folks have visited us since January last year.
It’s funny how you don’t realise what you had until you lose what you’d long taken for granted. And you don’t often appreciate how much you’ve missed something until you get it back again. I think both statements are equally true in this case.
It used to be just part of our routine that every three to four weeks my parents (and often my brother too) would come to us for the weekend. The kids would get lots of hugs. We’d do a roast in winter; a barbecue during the summer. The mah jong would come out.
For the past 17 months, we’ve had none of those things. We’ve made do with Skype video calls and, more recently, visits to their garden and afternoon walks. Seeing Kara throw her arms around Grandma and watching the kids celebrating mah jong wins really brought home how much we’d missed these small moments. The little things matter. We’ve lost a lot of time over the past 17 months. Today we started to make up for it.
I’ve seen lots of stories and photos from others in recent weeks that speak to similar emotions. Beers at the pub. Making surprise visits to friends and family. We’re all rediscovering so many things that we used to do without a second thought. Hopefully we’ll never take them for granted again.
Thursday 10th June
In the Heights was one of many movies whose releases were held over from 2020 as a result of the pandemic. It comes out in cinemas in the UK at the end of next week, and Kara and I are both keen to see it.
However, am I ready to sit inside a dark, enclosed space full (or even half-full) of strangers for upwards of two hours? It appears the answer is: no. I guess we’ll just have to wait for it to be released on streaming services in the autumn.
How many people will be willing to set foot inside a cinema in the short-term? I’m sure many will be fine with it. But I’m sure I’m far from alone in my reluctance to return to a movie theatre. For now, it’s a step I’m not yet ready to take.
Friday 11th June
I watched the opening game of Euro 2020 at a friend’s house with a small group of fellow dads, surrounded by a mountain of beer and snack food. This is about as normal as it gets.
Monday 14th June
We’ve been building up to this for the past couple of weeks, but today Prime Minister Boris Johnson officially announced a four-week delay to implementing step four of the UK’s roadmap out of lockdown – the lifting of the last restrictions that would enable a full return to ‘normal’.
Unless you’ve had your head in the sand, we’ve seen this coming for some time. Five weeks ago, the rolling seven-day average for new cases per day was 2,000. Now we’re touching 7,000, mostly fuelled by the Delta (India) variant. Government messaging has been increasingly cautious over the past 2-3 weeks. And while we’re seeing hospitalisations and deaths growing at a much slower rate thanks to the vaccination programme, the data as a whole is extremely concerning.
When the government first announced their roadmap in February, they went to great pains to underline that the target end date of 21st June was prefaced by the words ‘no earlier than’. However, certain factions within the UK media were all too keen to immediately declare 21st June as ‘Freedom Day’ and start questioning why we couldn’t open up even earlier.
As much as Messrs Johnson, Hancock and their Cabinet colleagues must shoulder responsibility for the errors and events leading up to today’s announcement – ahem, not moving India to the red list and allowing the new variant to take hold in the UK – they are not entirely at fault. The press have played a role too. (Obviously, all parties will deny any accountability and face no consequences, as is now the accepted norm.)
As one would expect, ever since it became apparent yesterday that a delay would be announced – via leaked announcements yet again – social media has been awash with talk of rebellion. Thousands of users have shared the hashtag #ImDone and promised to take off their masks for good, no matter what. While I totally understand their frustration, I’m not really sure what choice there is. Nobody wants to go backwards and impose tighter restrictions again or, worse still, another lockdown. But to commit to opening up next week was one risk too far even for a Prime Minister who has too often demonstrated a reckless penchant for placing big bets and rolling the dice.
I’m not going to pull apart the arguments for and against here. I’ve already been down this road more times than I care to mention. And, to be honest, I’m too tired to have the same tedious, divisive ‘debate’ with people who don’t want to listen to anything that contradicts their world-view. Suffice to say that we’re all fed up, nobody wants to give up the sense of normality we have started to rebuild over the past few weeks, and that any path that potentially leads us back into lockdown is one to be avoided if at all possible.
More than a step backwards, another lockdown would effectively be an admission of defeat that Johnson will not tolerate. A pause now is infinitely more preferable to the potential (likely?) alternative. We cannot – must not – go back to the dark days of winter once again.
Previous ‘Life under lockdown’ entries