On 15th March I met my friend for lunch. That was just over two weeks ago, but it feels like ten years. In the intervening fortnight, life as we know it slowly ground to a halt.
While most of the world was celebrating New Year’s Eve, the WHO China Office was made aware of a new type of Coronavirus.
Nobody else noticed for a few weeks. Even as reports came out of China about mounting numbers of deaths, most people in this part of the world (myself included, I must admit) seemed complacent. When those first coachloads of unfortunate tourists arrived at Arrowe Park Hospital, I didn’t really think much of it. In early March, European countries started announcing restrictions on movement and border closures, but at the same time, I was cheerfully planning a trans-continental train trip for June, confident that it would all be over by then.
Three months after that first report to the WHO, there can be few people on Earth who are not aware of COVID-19.
Boris Johnson – who, for the record, I think is an arsehole – was criticised for being slow to react to the pandemic. He even boasted about going into a hospital and shaking hands with patients on the Coronavirus ward. At one point, journalists were reporting that the strategy was for to allow the virus to pass through the population in a “controlled” manner, to acquire herd immunity. Days later, the Health Secretary said that wasn’t the plan after all. Just as well, because one study said it could cause 260,000 deaths.
Perhaps because of the mixed messages from the government, various events which should have been cancelled went ahead. The Cheltenham festival went ahead, packing thousands of people in to a confined space to watch the horse racing. The Champions League game between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid took place at Anfield, with thousands of fans travelling from Madrid, which had been declared a “hotspot” days earlier. Jürgen Klopp has reportedly called this decision a “criminal act” and it’s hard to disagree.
As the crisis deepened, Johnson started giving daily briefings to the public (good idea) but seemed incapable of giving clear statements and guidance, waffling on like he is still presenting Have I Got News For You. He told people not to go to pubs and restaurants, but didn’t order them to actually close until days later, an instruction akin to putting a five-year-old in a room full of toys and telling them not to play with them.
In the UK, scenes played out like the prologue of a post-apocalyptic movie. First there was the the pointless panic buying in supermarkets. Toilet paper was the must-have item – it seemed that the UK was collectively shitting itself. News channels showed alarming graphs with red lines rising ever more steeply.
Finally, on 23rd March, Johnson did what he should have done at least a week earlier – he ordered draconian restrictions on everyone’s lives. No leaving home, except to go to work, or to exercise, or to go to the supermarket. Don’t visit friends or family. Stay at least 2 metres away from other people. It’s not quite the total lockdown that some other countries have experienced, but it’s pretty close.
I was designated a “key worker” by my company (the joys of working in IT support) which meant I continued travelling to the office for a few days after everyone else was ordered to stay home.
My final trip into town, two days after the “lockdown”, was an eerie experience. I disembarked from a near-empty train at Liverpool Central, where there were more Merseyrail staff than passengers. I walked through a silent city centre, past closed stores and theatres advertising shows which would never take place. I couldn’t help but notice billboards carrying an unfortunately timed ad campaign for Avanti West Coast trains – slogan “Let’s get together”.
Cities are supposed to be bustling, happy places; to see one so quiet was unsettling, and I’m glad to be working from home for the foreseeable future so I don’t have to see it.
Meanwhile, the vague wording of the new restrictions has led some police forces to overstep their authority. In one case police reportedly tried to stop a shop from selling Easter Eggs because they are “non-essential”, although personally I can’t think of anything more essential in a crisis than chocolate. Urgent guidelines have now been issued to ensure forces know what they’re doing.
How long will we all be Netflix and chilling for? The initial lockdown will be reviewed after three weeks, but given the incubation period of the virus, it’s unlikely we will know for sure by then that the lockdown is having an effect. The lockdown conditions will be extended further, possibly for many months.
I’m well aware that I am relatively fortunate here. I’m not an extrovert who goes out partying every night; I’m perfectly happy curling up on the couch with an iPad. I live in a nice house with a garden and a park five minutes walk away to get my daily exercise. I still have a job, one which I can do from home. Many people will find lockdown tougher than I will.
The UK’s deputy chief medical officer says it could be as long as six months before things go back to normal. But what is “normal” now?
This pandemic will have a lasting effect on the nation’s collective psyche. Things may go back to “normal”, but I suspect that they will never entirely go back to the way they were before.