It has been sixteen weeks since Boris Johnson declared “we can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks” on the pandemic sweeping the world. The prime minister added, with his typical exuberance, that he was “absolutely confident that we can send coronavirus packing”. A few days after that speech was made, he placed the country into lockdown and life, as we knew it, ended.
“It is hard to escape the feeling that the worst is behind us.” – Sebastian Payne
One hundred days on and some of Mr Johnson’s prophecy has come true. The tide of the pandemic appears to be ebbing: deaths from coronavirus are falling daily and society is beginning to open up again. If not normal, then our work and social lives are creeping back. The disease has not quite been sent “packing” – as the localised lockdown of Leicester proves – yet it is hard to escape the feeling that the worst is behind us.
These have been testing times. The number of deaths, many of them avoidable, shames the nation. The disaster in care homes, the shortages of medical equipment and the struggles with adequate testing are failures that hang heavily over the government. Yet there have also been triumphs. The NHS has coped far better than predicted. Touchingly, thousands of retired doctors and nurses have returned to the health service to see the nation through this time of need.
What has surprised me about the lockdown is how we adapted to it as a society. In a stoic manner, Britons got on with what was asked of them. When Downing Street initially urged us all to stay 2m apart and avoid leaving our homes, they hoped for 75 per cent compliance rate to thwart the spread of the disease. In the early weeks of the lockdown, it was well above 95 per cent. As we have become exasperated, it has naturally slipped back. But those of us with and without faith have upended our lives to serve a greater purpose. An almost-lost sense of national unity and community has emerged during this crisis.
In lockdown, those of us with and without faith have upended our lives to serve a greater purpose. – Sebastian Payne
But the private toll of lockdown has been huge – much of it out of sight with repercussions that will not be fully recognised for years. For almost everyone I know, lockdown has been an emotional rollercoaster. Some have lost their livelihoods; others have lost friends and relations before their time. And many have lost their naivety when it comes to the state’s ability to protect us from worst possible events.
So much has been lost. Young professionals have seen their social and working lives destroyed — the pub and office replaced by tedious Zoom chats. The millions told they must isolate for the sake of the health have been trapped within their four walls for endless days. Families have been separated by hundreds of miles, with parents split from their offspring. And families separated by continents still have no sense of when they can be reunited. That lost time together can never be regained.
Families separated by continents still have no sense of when they can be reunited. That lost time together can never be regained. – Sebastian Payne
But as a society, we can take solace in the fact that we have – broadly speaking – survived. The question is now what happens if lockdown returns. Mr Johnson has pledged that any future shutdowns will only happen at a local level, thanks to the government’s beefed-up (but also untested) contact tracing regime. Leicester will be a critical case for determining whether this can work. For the good of the economy, ministers are desperately hoping it does.
What remains unsaid in Westminster is that the country will really struggle to cope with another lockdown. Surviving these the past one hundred days has been possible thanks to the nirvana of freedom awaiting us this summer. Facing it all over again, during the colder winter months, when travel is even harder and the health service will once again be faced with challenges, is frightening. The new bonds Britain has forged during lockdown risk being destroyed if the country faces even greater challenges. If we have learnt anything from coronavirus so far, it is a virus with a destiny, like ours, that is difficult to control.
Sebastian Payne is Whitehall correspondent for the Financial Times.
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