1. Lockdown diaries: London’s limbo between the old world and the new

    Posted April 30, 2020 in covid19, Diary  |  No Comments so far

    It’s the end of April now, which means it’s the end of the first full month under lockdown conditions.

    What has this meant for us? It’s meant that both adults in our house work from home all the time. It’s also meant that the two children are home-schooled.

    On a typical day I look after the home-schooling activities in the morning while my wife works. Around lunchtime, my wife takes over as educator while I work. In the evening, when the kids are asleep, we both work.

    It’s a difficult pattern because it leaves very little time in the day to unwind. By the time work is finished late in the evening, it’s usually advisable to go to bed as soon as possible, because the kids will wake up very early in the morning and want us to be awake too. In reality, we often stay up too late and then regret it the next morning.

    During the UK’s current lockdown rules, we do get to go outside. It’s acceptable to go out for exercise once a day and it’s acceptable to go out to buy essentials such as food. Perhaps it’s acceptable to go out for exercise and then also to buy food in a single day, but I just assume that if I’ve gone out for either reason then I’m done until tomorrow.

    When I do go out, it goes without saying that the external world is very different. Everything is quieter, there are fewer people around, most shops and businesses are shuttered. Red tape is draped across street furniture, park benches and playground equipment.

    A new regime of etiquette is taking shape, based on the principle of social distancing. The central idea is that everyone is a threat to everyone else. We all do our utmost not to get close to other people and are entitled to get very huffy if people get too close to us. Supermarkets have set up little markers – just yellow tape on the ground for now, but something more permanent will come – to let people know how far they should be from one another. Sometimes I feel concerned about the sense of mutual suspicion all this has fostered, about how it’s rocket fuel for our tendency to think negatively about others. But at other times I get sucked into it myself, side-eying people who come a bit too close or who don’t seem to be out of the house for a government-approved reason.

    And yet, despite all these changes, I sense that we’re not about to start drifting back towards what was once normal. I feel like we have further to go along this particular direction of travel.

    For example, most people you see out and about in London today are not wearing masks: I’m sure that will change before long, whether the government mandates them or not. And as various businesses and institutions begin to reopen, the rules they have to follow in order to operate will make the world seem even more different than it does now. A closed school is something we might have walked past every weekend before all this happened, so in itself it’s not that surprising to encounter one. But what about a school that’s open and being run in accordance with social distancing rules? What about a cinema, or an airline, or a restaurant?

    If these things are going to come back at all, the experience of accessing them is going to be profoundly different. So maybe the post-lockdown era will not feel like a return to normality but, instead, a step outside into an even more dramatically transformed world.

  2. An update on life under the Covid-19 lockdown conditions

    Posted March 27, 2020 in covid19, Diary  |  No Comments so far

    It’s nearly two weeks since I posted “Asda on the Edge of the Apocalypse“, in which I described a visit to Asda. I held back from describing the atmosphere of that weekend as “weird”, because…

    …while this weekend might seem like a weird phase today, it might not seem weird at all by next weekend… Next weekend might present us with a new understanding of what counts as “weird”.

    Well, it’s hardly an understatement to say that it’s got weirder since then. During that weekend – the weekend of 14th-15th March – almost everything was happening. My son’s parkour and swimming classes were running. People weren’t queuing outside supermarkets.

    Yes, Apple had only just closed its stores outside of mainland China, so when in Westfield we saw a line of staff outside the Apple store; presumably to inform customers about the closure, though if I saw them now I’d think they were there to fend off looters. And yes, the supermarkets had sold out of toilet roll and painkillers, and Superdrug was limiting the amount of painkillers a single customer could buy. That was enough to make me toy with the idea of using the word “weird” to describe what was going on that weekend.

    But writing today, nearly two weeks on, I can say that it really wasn’t weird. If you drew a line with what I’ll call a “normal state of life” at one end and the way things are now, at the weekend of 28th-29th March, at the other end, that day when Apple stores had shut wouldn’t be halfway along it. It would be far closer to the “normal state of life” end.

    Here’s a subjective account of what happened between when we went to Asda and now. I’ve written this just from memory rather than using Google.

    Monday 17th March

    By this time the UK government denied “herd immunity” was its strategy. This might have been the time that Boris Johnson started giving direct daily updates – up until then ministers had been communicating policy through anonymous briefings to favoured journalists. I was working from home by this point but schools were still open.

    Wednesday 18th March

    Rumours were flying around that school closures were imminent. Some kids were being kept home due to their families self-isolating, but, more materially, some teachers had started to self-isolate too, so schools were increasingly concerned about their staffing levels. At this point the government was saying you and your household should self-isolate if you had any symptoms. It was unrealistic to think you could get tested so you had to assume you were infected and self-isolate for 14 days.

    Towards the end of the day it came out that the schools would indeed close from Friday.

    Thursday 19th March

    This was a day where, for me personally, it started to really feel like a crisis. The previous evening, journalists were being told that London was close to being put under lockdown, possibly cut off from the rest of the country, to slow down the spread of the virus. I went out for a run early that morning and took this picture.


















    It was a pretty bleak scene. Cold, damp and grey, with this notion of imminent isolation hanging over the city. I felt perturbed by it but didn’t disapprove. I felt like severe measures were needed. This was also the first day I started to notice strangers observing social distancing – runners moving out into the road to remain distant from each other, that sort of thing. But when I went for this particular run the streets were a lot busier than I thought they’d be.

    Later that day the government denied quite strongly that there plans to seal off London, so who knows where all this had been coming from the night before.

    Friday 20th March

    The last day of school. Boris Johnson appeared on TV that evening and said al pubs and restaurants had to close. Also, Rishi Sunak announced the government scheme to cover 80% of employee’s salaries for at least three months, in the hope of warding off a tsunami of redundancies. It was a major intervention although it had no provisions for freelancers. I started to feel at this point that the government was recognising and responding to the severity of what was going on.

    Saturday 21st – Sunday 22nd March

    After Friday’s announcement and the indefinite closure of school, I woke up on the Saturday feeling like this was really the first day of a new phase of our lives. It wasn’t easy. I was still in a cycle of looking at the news and social media almost all the time and having a rolling anxiety attack, which would sometimes intensify or subside but never ended. It even felt like it was happening while I was asleep – I’d wake up feeling burnt out, then would immediately reach for my phone to top up on the stress.

    Monday 23rd March

    There were lots of reports of people over the weekend failing to observe social distancing guidelines, so that evening Boris Johnson announced that the rules were hardening as a result. More businesses were to shut, the police would enforce rules about congregating with other people, you weren’t to visit anyone, only a certain amount of outdoor trips allowed per day and for only certain reasons.

    I watched his announcement live and, yes, it was fair to describe that experience as “weird”. It was a combination words I would never have expected to hear coming out of the mouth of the prime minister. Yet even though the measures being introduced were quite strict, it was pretty much a description of how I’d been living for around two weeks, so it didn’t signal any major changes for our family.

    Also, this was the first day of home-schooling while trying to work from home. That’s a subject for another post…

    Tuesday 24th – Friday 27th March

    We’ve started to get some indication of the economic scale of what’s happening. Look at this chart of US unemployment claims that came out on Thursday. The vertical line to the right is not the y-axis. Is this the economic equivalent of the Chicxulub impact event?











    In this period I’ve been outside for two early-morning runs (not on the same day of course!) and to collect some fruit and vegetables from a scheme we’ve been signed up to for a few years. I think that’s it? Unless you also count when I stepped out of the front door to join in our street’s applause for the NHS.

    When have gone out there is very much an air of emergency, crisis, drama, whatever you want to call it. But that atmosphere isn’t one of screaming, shouting and urgency: instead, it’s the quietness, the stillness, that feels dramatic. It’s the edginess of people who work in shops, doing what they can to protect themselves with plastic gloves or t-shirts pulled up to cover their mouths. There is hardly anyone you see out and about who seems to be acting normal, who you would expect to be confused if you asked them about the pandemic. Back on that weekend of the 15th-16th March, when nearly everything was still happening, it definitely seemed like a lot of people were still oblivious. They aren’t any more.

  3. It’s no longer the time to be saying Let’s Not Worry Too Much

    Posted March 20, 2020 in covid19, Diary  |  No Comments so far

    A few days ago, Imelda Flattery’s tweet made me curious.

    I wanted to find this original report, possibly with the hope that finding it would give me a brief nostalgia rush, taking me back in time to what now, authentically, feels like a different era from the one we now inhabit.

    After locating and defeating Twitter’s “Advanced Search” interface – not to mention a lot of vertical scrolling – I found what might be one of the earliest pieces of BBC reporting on the coronavirus.

    Here’s the first tweet I could find from Stephen McDonell that explicitly references it. It’s part of a thread and I’ve included the first three here. You can read more on Twitter.

    Obviously it feels strange now to read the “let’s not worry too much” sections in this very early reporting, but it’s really unfair to be critical of it. Bear in mind the niche nature of the story as it was back then. If somebody in mid-January had published an accurate prediction of what the virus would do to the world, it would have come across as deranged, its author banished to the internet’s hinterlands.

    As the virus unfolded in China and began to spread to other countries, though, we did accumulate enough data and information to make more accurate predictions about its impact. Some of that data can be understood by looking at these excellent charts from the FT’s John Burn-Murdoch:

    You can see from the second chart in particular that the UK had more deaths than Italy did at a similar stage in its infection curve. So this gives us an indication of the likely severity.

    Despite this, there is still a bit of a “let’s not worry too much” theme here in the UK. Even as recently as a week ago prominent media figures were reacting with shock and disgust whenever an institution acted more cautiously than government guidance required:

    What I find interesting about the above tweet is that the Wellcome Trust’s decision was being framed through the kaleidoscope of UK party politics – that it was somehow “anti-Tory” to take the decision that they took.

    But it’s far from being the only example of this. Across the board, the UK’s political culture made it difficult to advise caution and take decisive steps without it being seen as an anti-government stance to take. It led to awkward contradictory messages such as the below:


















    People in the future who look back on this time might underestimate the degree to which ideology influenced the country’s virus response – they’d be unwise to do so, I think. There’s a lot to learn about how political factionalism can warp perceptions of reality and affect a society’s ability to make decisions in a rational way. Sometimes you do need to look clearly at other countries and learn from their mistakes.

    The damage from this initial framing is still being felt. A lot of people read these opinion pieces when they were coming out and took the decision that they wouldn’t change their routines, that they’d keep socialising and working as usual, whether to “own the libs” or – perhaps more bizarrely – to “own the virus”, by denying it a moral victory.

    (“I’m hardly changing at all, because if you do that then you give into it…”)

    Normally, two months doesn’t seem like a long time. Stephen McDonell’s first BBC report on coronavirus didn’t come out all that long ago. But we’ve learnt so much about the coronavirus in that time, and it’s fair to say the world has changed profoundly. There’s no reason why we should still be hearing people say, “let’s not worry too much”.

  4. Asda on the Edge of Apocalypse

    Posted March 15, 2020 in covid19, Diary  |  2 Comments so far

    We’re at a phase in the coronavirus situation.

    When I said “a phase” just then, I intentionally didn’t insert any adjectives like “serious” or “weird” because while this weekend might seem like a weird phase today, it might not seem weird at all by next weekend. Next weekend we might be looking back at today and thinking about how normal it felt, that it was anything but weird. Next weekend might present us with a new understanding of what counts as “weird”.

    So all I can say, really, is that we’re at a phase in all this. It’s different from how it was last weekend and it’s different from how it will be next weekend. It’s a phase.

    During this phase shops are still open and it’s not against the law to leave your house. My children’s usual activities like swimming, parkour and ballet class all happened. Public transport was running. Does all of this normal, banal stuff sound weird to you, if you’re reading this one week or one month from now?

    We went to Asda in Walthamstow. It was different from yesterday, when we went to Waitrose in Westfield. Waitrose had sold all its toilet roll and kitchen towel – which would have seemed very weird two weeks ago, come to think of it – but otherwise Waitrose seemed normal, if a little quiet. I got a much stronger sense of impending social collapse in Asda today.

    Several sections of the shelves were completely bare. There was no toilet roll, no dried pasta, no painkillers. The image of the empty painkiller shelves stuck with me. It wasn’t a big surprise to see that but really, that would have seemed very weird two weeks ago.

    People didn’t really seem scared or panicked in Asda but I don’t think the phrase “mildly spooked” would be overstating it too much. Maybe a lot of them were feeling the same thing as me, the weirdness of seeing these empty shelves, of seeing up close these early indications of the strain being applied to the unseen systems that supply us. Maybe if I’d been there earlier, when the shop still had toilet paper and pasta and painkillers and people were trying to buy all of it, maybe there would have been more fear and panic in the air then.

    After visiting Asda we walked through the main shopping mall and I looked at the shopfronts and adverts. These posters and displays still wanted people to buy things like clothes, or perfume, or mobile phone contracts. A little bit optimistic on their part, I thought. People only care about toilet roll and pain relief now. For a moment I remembered the scene in Threads where survivors of the nuclear holocaust barter over bags of dead rats against a backdrop of a faded Standard Life advert.

    Picture of nuclear holocaust survivors in front of 1980s advert

    Post-armageddon advertising

    In Superdrug, there was an explicit policy that no customer would be allowed to buy more than two items of any painkiller product. Again, the signs saying this would have been very surreal to even contemplate a month ago, but when I saw them I just thought it was a sensible thing to do. We were able to buy some Calpol. And also, in Superdrug, there were still a lot of people, mainly younger women, who were interested in things that weren’t toilet paper or pasta or painkillers or bags of dead rats – instead, they were intently studying makeup and hairspray and other items in the cosmetics section, as if it was just another day. Will they still be doing that next weekend, though? Or will that have become weird too?