COVID-19 SPECIAL

Lockdown lifted in Britain but fears of a Covid-19 resurgence persist

Space constraints mean social distancing will simply often prove impossible.
Space constraints mean social distancing will simply often prove impossible.PHOTO: REUTERS

DEVON - The lockdown officially lifted on Saturday (July 4) across England after nearly 15 weeks, although people had been casting a blind eye to the restrictions way before this.

Call it lockdown fatigue or the Dominic Cummings effect, but after Prime Minister Boris Johnson's chief adviser caused a national uproar six weeks ago by justifying his repeated breaking of restrictions, more people have started to embrace, at best, the spirit, rather than the letter, of the guidelines, and at worst, ignoring them altogether.

On May 29, when rules were relaxed to allow groups of up to six to meet outdoors, a crowd of 100 teenagers had to be dispersed by police at a Plymouth beach. Two days later, thousands gathered in London to protest in the wake of George Floyd's death. By June 15, when non-essential shops were allowed to reopen, young people had organised dozens of raves up and down the country, with one in Greater Manchester attended by about 4,000 people.

On radio and in newspapers across the country, people were confessing to their transgressions as the mood relaxed, bolstered by a falling death rate that last month returned to the normal of pre-pandemic days. As the summer sizzled, people came out in droves. On June 25, the hottest day of the year, half a million descended on the beaches of Dorset.

The outcome? On Tuesday, Leicester city was ordered back into lockdown after infections spiked dangerously - the first of what is certain to be a spate of second-wave lockdowns. At least 36 other hot spots are at risk of returning to lockdown.

The swing in the public mood has not been helped by fuzzy official guidelines.

Nurseries and pre-schools reopened last month in Devon, where I am, with socially distanced desks and hand sanitisers. But while my older child's primary school teachers are handling children's work with gloves, in the pre-school next door, my younger child is still receiving hugs from the teachers.

When your child is running home after school with a friend, messing about with no thought of social distancing despite us parents trying to maintain their gap, parents keeping our own 2m gap becomes more of a formality than anything else. When you think about how many families in the village have at least a child going to primary or pre-school, maintaining a stringent household "bubble" becomes little more than a pipe dream.

I found out how easy it was to transgress when I was invited to meet a few villagers to discuss a voluntary project: We kept to the spirit of distancing by sitting loosely around a table outdoors, unable to keep 2m apart due to space constraints - and happily sharing biscuits and fudge.

Talk to anyone in the village and the general sentiment is that "things are getting better", "we can't stay in lockdown forever" and "people have to be able to get on with their lives".

Even the village shop, which went into lockdown mode before the nation did, is preparing to reopen, with a one-way shopping system and no more than four customers at a time, in a tight space where it is difficult to socially distance.

 
 
 
 

Britain's reluctance to adopt face masks (now required in general practitioner surgeries and on public transport) meant it relied almost exclusively on social distancing at the often impossible 2m, making a farce of any return to normal activity.

When I braved a trip to town on June 16, a day after shops reopened, it promised to be a bizarre experience. Shops had warned in advance that any clothes tried on or books rifled through would have to be disinfected and quarantined for days. Deciding against the folly of retail therapy, I went on a much-needed visit to the pharmacy. But Boots would allow only two customers at once, which meant queueing up on a narrow pavement - and being well within 2m of every other person walking by.

Once inside, hand sanitiser was available at the door and Perspex "spit screens" erected around the cash registers. But not everyone made use of the not-very-clearly indicated sanitiser, and the cashier had to step out from behind her screen to ring up purchases. And not every customer abided by the one-in-one-out rule. A woman with a child entered after I came out, obviously because she couldn't just leave the child outside.

At the local hardware store, staff spoke about the difficulty of even getting the Perspex screens for their own use.

Now that distancing has ostensibly been reduced to a more sensible "1m plus", things are still far from clear. The much-anticipated return to bars and pubs is expected to fall flat, with nobody allowed to stand at the bar and toilet visits with social distancing - which means long queues and no-go for families with young children, like mine. Likewise, you can visit other people and even stay overnight but should try not to use the loo. If you absolutely have to, the guidelines say you should wipe everything down afterwards and also wash your hands thoroughly.

With lockdown lifted, social distancing, which is still advised at 2m in many circumstances, will simply often prove impossible, and even "1m plus" is only if you're wearing a mask, have a screen between you, or are facing away from each other. Rather than depend on other people to keep their distance from me, I prefer to don a mask and use hand sanitiser whenever I leave the village - which I plan to do as much as possible while lockdown is lifted.


In many places, including Devon, England, more people have started to embrace, at best, the spirit, rather than the letter, of the guidelines. PHOTO: DIONNE THOMPSON

With six weeks of summer school holidays beckoning, a glorious sunny spell all but promised, anti-racism protests on the simmer, and people already adopting the Cummings approach to interpreting the guidelines, are the odds on for England to suffer a serious second wave?

Yet Mr Johnson's government has little choice but to reopen, and quickly, with the economy down a record 20 per cent in the first month of lockdown alone and expected to contract by 10 per cent for the year, the budget deficit at levels never seen in peacetime Britain, and public trust in government severely tested after the refusal to indict Mr Cummings for his lockdown breaches.

This is a government that has made a U-turn on herd immunity, failed to keep the test rate at 100,000 per day and abandoned an embarrassing and costly attempt to develop its own tracing app. Even its newly announced "new deal" has attracted criticism that there is, well, nothing new.

When lockdown was announced on March 23, people initially rallied, with surprisingly few protests for a society with such a long and deep liberal tradition. And Mr Johnson was still fresh from winning the biggest majority in the House of Commons for the Conservative Party since 1987. Much has changed since. If Covid-19 was a test for his government, many feel it has, quite simply, failed. And with the lifting of lockdown already marred by the first local lockdown, the true test for Britain has yet to come.