In late April, I interviewed Chris White, the leader of the Liberal Democrat group on St Albans District Council. Chris is also a county councillor. We spoke about the challenges COVID-19 has created for the district and for the council, how the crisis has reshaped working patterns, and why he’s concerned about the future funding of the council. Continue reading “Think Local (Britain in Lockdown, Part 6)”
World, Interrupted (Britain in Lockdown, Part 5)
It’s been seven weeks since I last slipped the surly bonds of Saint Albans district, a brief walk in the new plantation at Heartwood being the height of my ambition since then. I love watching cities disappear behind me on trains and plains, even on the small stage of England. So I’m getting a bit delirious walking the same leafy avenues, looking out at the same tarmac and streetlights, and seeing the same few people locked in their own boxes. I’m missing hugging my friends, I’m missing the crowds of London, and I’m missing pub gardens like crazy. I’m even missing Thameslink. Okay, no, I lied about that one. Continue reading “World, Interrupted (Britain in Lockdown, Part 5)”
Pieces of the Puzzle: Key Sectors and Workers (Britain in Lockdown, Part 4)
Names have been changed throughout this article1.
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On the morning of Monday 16th March, Alex was starting his week as a teacher in an East Midlands secondary school. At the start of the school year he’d taken on a new role as the department’s Key Stage 4 lead- ‘it means I’m in charge of GCSE Maths, as well as doing the job of a regular teacher‘- and with GCSEs rapidly approaching, the school was getting students ready for the upcoming challenge. Maths mock exams were still underway. Although all the coronavirus indicators were flashing red, the school still had a duty to teach students and prepare them for their exams.
A week later, the school gates had shuttered indefinitely. On Wednesday 18th, the school made plans to suspend classes for Year 8 through 10, and shortly afterwards the order came to close all schools by the end of the week. The next two days were surprisingly calm: ‘the majority of people were just carrying on with their life really, and trying to keep the kids calm and answer questions.‘ But Alex acknowledges that it wasn’t always easy to maintain an atmosphere of calm, because ‘we had year 11 mocks that week. As a result, some kids that didn’t take their maths tests seriously started causing a lot of anxiety with the other students‘.
By Tuesday 24th April, Marie, a police officer (and Alex’s wife) was preparing to go out and police a city in lockdown. New powers were being rapidly developed, to fine rule-breakers, and if necessary, to use reasonable force to break up groups. However, the new powers are rarely used in full, as Marie explains:
‘We follow a four-step protocol- Engage, Explain, Engage again, and then Enforce as a last resort. Even if we did Enforce and take people back home against their will, are we going to sit with them? No, because we’ve not got the resources… So you could arrest them, but you can’t just nick everybody. We police by consent, and we try not to arrest people for this kind of thing unless it’ll cause a great deal of harm if we don’t. Personally, I haven’t fined anybody, but we threaten it often when people aren’t listening to us.’
Trying to persuade people can be exasperating, but it’s the only way to keep the country on your side as you navigate through testing times. Sometimes, a bit of gallows humour can do the trick. ‘The other day, I was speaking to some sunbathers in the park who just weren’t getting it, and I said, look, if you don’t understand what 2 metres distance is, it’s a dead person between you and them.’ Nonetheless, it’s an uphill struggle, and for a police force which is dealing with a notable increase in domestic violence call-outs, it’s difficult to find the bandwidth to keep people safely indoors.
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Patterns of Work and Life
COVID-19 has changed all of our lives so quickly that, despite the libraries of thinkpieces and blog articles, none of us has a holistic perspective of the changes happening around us. We see the tendrils of change instead in our own lives, as our patterns of work shape themselves around our new reality. For most of us, this means working from home, perhaps typing reports in our pyjamas or trying to organize Zoom calls over intermittent wi-fi connections. For others, it means coming home late and making PPE by hand to cover a supply shortfall.
One of the key lessons of the lockdown has been that quieter days aren’t necessarily less stressful. Grace, a Floating Support worker based in London, leads a team which supports people who typically live in their own accommodation and have additional mental health needs. Typically, support workers would meet people in cafes or other places outside the home, sit down to chat with them and find out if they need any specific support. But now ‘work has become entirely focussed on checking if people are well or unwell by phone, delivering them food, and making sure our service users don’t have to go out.‘
Service users of mental health support services often aren’t well-connected; many have poor wi-fi connections (if any) and may have lost or broken their phones, making contact difficult. In addition, ‘we’re helping people who are rule breakers in general, both through necessity and because of their mental health and drug use. People with severe mental health issues often can’t cope with being indoors all the time, and fill their time with going out.’ Lockdown exacerbates other mental health issues, and is likely to be a huge strain for people with addictions. Grace sometimes feels frustrated that stringent lockdown rules limit her capacity to actively help people.
For some workers, though, the surprise has been how much they’re still able to do. Tom, who started a medical recruitment company after over a decade of nursing, thought his business would grind to a halt when the NHS announced a freeze on hiring of health care professional for most sectors. ‘Where there’s uncertainty, people often don’t know what to do, so they do nothing… from an early stage in this process, as the ripples spread out, we noticed some people changing their minds and staying with their existing jobs.‘ However, the number of applicants has been steady. The vacancies are still there, and candidates are still needed to fill them, although most applicants won’t get a definite answer until after the acute stage of this crisis is through.
There’s been a good deal of what Tom calls ‘panic buying’, from locum agency nurses looking for something more permanent, to operating theater (surgical) nurses who can’t work because all elective surgery has been postponed, and are ‘madly applying‘ to a spectrum of vacancies. It’s hard to know whether some of these applicants are serious about changing their jobs, or just stuck in a difficult position. ‘The thing is, once this is all resolved, there’ll be a huge, full-steam-ahead push to clear the backlog of elective surgery. I would expect that private hospitals will be taking on NHS load as part of that process. People who needed elective surgery before this will continue to need it, and perhaps need it even more critically if their symptoms get worse.’
For some key workers, this period is the busiest they’ve known. Through her police radio, Marie has always received a large number of call-outs to domestic violence or abuse situations. ‘In the past, the police weren’t taking it seriously. They were going to crime scenes, saying ‘oh, it’s just a domestic thing’, and people were getting killed. So now the amount of safeguarding has dramatically increased.’ Six weeks into the lockdown, domestic disputes are at fever pitch, neighbours are at one another’s throats, and the police are facing an uphill battle to keep people safe from coronavirus- and each other.
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One word has been thrown around a lot since all of this started. Airline companies are ‘bleeding cash at an unprecedented speed’, Chinese universities promise an ‘unprecedented global research effort’, Irish unemployment is at an ‘unprecedented level’. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: for most of us, our jobs, and our lives, are transformed in unfamiliar, topsy-turvy ways. We are inventing new protocols and processes on the fly.
This summer, for the first time since GCSEs were introduced, no final exams will take place. Instead, teachers like Alex will be compiling grades. ‘We’re going to use the mock exams and other data to create a predicted grade, and then they’re going to assess that against previous years and against our targets, just to make sure we’re not tempted to try and go a bit higher and inflate grades. We also need to rank students within each grade, from, say, the highest 7 to the borderline 6-7 students, so that if the government wants movement, they can shift students up and down if they need to.‘ It’s a rough process, and it’s going to be a bumpy ride in the summer when students receive their results. Meanwhile, Alex is setting online homework and trying to motivate students to think of their future, instead of settling in for one very long summer holiday.
Many of the people Grace works with are recovering from drug addictions, or still using. Both groups have received methadone as a treatment, but for safety reasons, they were required to pick up their prescription in person every day. For individuals with HIV or other underlying health conditions, that’s no longer safe, but ‘the drug services have no way of delivering to someone’s flat. We can pick it up for them, but that’s also complicated, because it’s a controlled substance.‘ She isn’t dealing with a huge amount of extra stress personally, but she feels worried for the people she works with. The same is true for Tom; speaking to nurses every day, he often hears stories reminiscent of conflict zones. ‘You’ve got patients coming in faster than the ambulances can unload them, and nowhere to put them. People have been dying in triage because there’s so many people waiting and not enough staff‘. He applauds the resilience of health workers, but thinks the health care system will face another shock after the acute crisis is over: nurses leaving the profession, and others needing extended leave. ‘Sadly, I think there’ll be a high mental health cost to be paid by the nurses who are on the frontlines‘.
Outside of the health sector too, key workers have been firefighting effectively until now, but the problems are broadening in scope as the lockdown extends. As Marie tells me, ‘for people who don’t have adequate housing, it’s really tough; they’re trying to keep their kids busy, they don’t have much money, they may rely on school meals, so they haven’t got enough food.‘2 Many of the same people who are most in need of an escape also don’t have gardens in which to cool off, so they are struggling to hold things together while spending nearly all day inside the house. ‘For most of us this is only temporary, but how long is a day when you’re sat there with somebody who is violent towards you?‘ says Marie, shaking her head. ‘It’s just crazy‘.
Police, health care and support services alike are worried about a deficiency of information during lockdown. Although police are being called out to domestic violence incidents at a greater rate, they’re also very concerned about children who are at risk of abuse, who may not be aware that there are authorities they can call. Meanwhile, Grace and her team think that people with substance addictions are likely to use more during the lockdown. ‘If you have a problem with addiction, and your support program’s been stopped, and you’re at home all day without friends or family- I mean, what are you going to do?‘ Although some drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin have been less available since March, other dangerous substances including the much-feared fentanyl may be emerging to fill the gaps.
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The Lost and the Return
Some of what we’ve lost in the flood can’t be salvaged. Students who were hoping to improve on their mock exam scores may have to make do with disappointing results. For teachers like Alex, this is tough to watch: ‘we’d planned recaps, homework and revision well for next term. A lot of planning and implementing for exams is just gone. And of course, some of the kids are devastated‘. Floating support services will find that the health of some of their service users has deteriorated in isolation, while some patients seeking elective surgery will have lost more motility and function over two months at home.
It’s essential to look forward, as well as back. Although we will need to take stock of how we handled the crisis, ultimately the purpose of such a task must be to prepare us better for the future. In the short term, Grace hopes that the relevant authorities will be able to provide internet access to people who are particularly vulnerable during lockdown, while Alex and his colleagues are working to get students ready for the return to school after a long unplanned absence.
In the short term, NHS hospitals will go into the future with their debt wiped (one local trust alone had £280 million of debt written off), and a hiring crisis. They will need to hire more nurses from around the world in order to cover the immediate shortfall, and they will probably do so. But in the longer term, Tom expects people to think seriously about the values of our society in the wake of the pandemic. ‘It’s really interesting to see who the key people are who keep the country going, and- it’s not bankers, is it? Couriers and supermarket staff and nurses- these are the people that really matter when the chips are down.‘
1- While researching this article, I spoke to four people working in, or with, key sectors in the United Kingdom through the COVID-19 lockdown.For freedom of communication, due to safeguarding concerns and for other reasons, all four preferred to speak anonymously.
2- Schools are providing free school meal deliveries to students in lower-income households, but not all schools have had the staff or the capacity to do this.
The Shutdown Around the World
Recently, I spoke to five people in five different cities across four continents, about their experience of lockdown in this time of crisis. Across the world, virtually every state has restricted or grounded flights; all European countries except for Belarus have closed their schools and most have closed shops, bars and restaurants. In Asia, nations like South Korea and Taiwan implemented tough measures early but never experienced full lockdown, while others like Japan and Singapore are currently strengthening their measures against the COVID-19 pandemic. Continue reading “The Shutdown Around the World”
Under the Rainbow (Britain in Lockdown, Part 3)
April is cruelly sunny right now, giving us the rarest of beasts- a British Easter weekend heavy with blossom and twenty-five degree warmth. After a mild, wet winter, the trees are bending under the weight of flours and wildlife is running amok. In fact, last week I saw a partridge hopping along my silent street, and the foxes and birds are loving their brief vacation from human oppression. Unfortunately, we’re all still in lockdown, with the NHS barely coping with a thousand deaths a day. As a result, we can only head out for exercise, jealously eyeing up the multitude of free-flying birds filling the spring with song.
I’m in two minds about some of the measures the government has imposed to keep people safe. On the one hand, I appreciate the severity of the crisis, and the challenge faced by police who are honestly trying to keep people safe. On the other hand, in Cottonmill this week I walked through an empty park in the lush sunshine, just a stone’s throw from severe social housing with boxy gardens (or none at all). It does seem hard not to give people the simple pleasure of sitting, socially distanced in the sunshine in their neighborhood park. I feel incredibly grateful to be surrounded by beautiful nature, from the coppiced serenity of Leyland Wood, to churchyards shadowed by ivy and the sweeping expanse of Verulamium Park. I’ve never appreciated the green belt1 more than I do right now.
In one of those little historical ironies, the crisis has confined me in Saint Albans again. Four years ago, I got out of here, after a struggle with insomnia (and, I think, depression) left me unmotivated and sluggish. I love my friends and family, but I wasn’t doing anything- living for weekends at the pub, and working to drink. I promised I wouldn’t come back here and get into old patterns, but after a typhoon blew my plans off course in Japan, I needed to come back and save a little money. So I moved back in with my endlessly supportive parents, and promised myself that it was a short-term thing.
Then, just as I was emerging from a spartan, working winter, the next storm hit. Suddenly, I was grounded in a small cathedral town even more somnolent than usual, all but three of its high street shops shuttered for the spring. As an arrogant student returning from university for Christmases and summers, I complained2 with some exaggeration about living in a quiescent backwater town. I now find myself living for real in the fictionalised town I moaned about, unnerved- fascinated- by its mossed-over silences.
Meanwhile, the town thrums along at its new minimal pace. When I go out for my daily exercise, I see small circles of huddled conspirators in front gardens, drinking wine together in the sunshine. The joggers are multiplying, and every now and again you come across traces of an earlier time- the guy walking down the road puffing on a joint, who got a cheer from two stacked lads on bikes. But for the most part, the mood music is subdued, broken only by the conversations of the birds. I’ve never seen London Road as silent as it was this Good Friday.
As people retreat behind painted wooden front doors, life inside those private realms blossoms. The city centre is deserted, with maybe four shops still open, but the suburbs have a jumpy, millenarian vibe behind the rows of orderly tulips and daffodils. All across the country, kids (and some adults) have been encouraged to draw or collage rainbows, and put them in their windows as a symbol of hope and encouragement for NHS workers. The rainbow as a symbol of hope has Biblical pedigree, of course; God sent it as his covenant to Noah after flooding the whole world and destroying all but eight of its earthly inhabitants. Thus the rainbow stands for hope, but also for catastrophic destruction. It’s a curious choice, but maybe an appropriate one. You’re in the flood, health professionals, but one day you’ll see a rainbow over the sullen sea.
Speaking of professions of faith, I’ve seen more of them than ever before in the streets. On Alexandra Road, a banner proclaims ‘For God So Loved the World…’, leaving the rest of the verse unspoken, implicit. Elsewhere, I’ve seen written professions of faith and religious artwork taped in windows. It’s Easter, and in many parts of the world this would be utterly normal, but in button-down, unspiritual Saint Albans its something of a rarity. But the churches are all closed, and the kids are at home with nothing to do, and people are scared.
There are darker manifestations of that fear, too. Internet apocalypse fan-fiction is metastasizing, and spilling out into the real world. Anti-globalisation (and often anti-semitic) conspiracies about George Soros and martial law have linked hands with paranoia about 5G and vaccines, pulling Bill Gates into their gravitational field along the way. The internet has been clumping fringe groups together for years, building Hydra monsters out of individual strains of kookery, and in the past I’ve typically found it very funny. However, at least twenty 5G masts have been burnt down in the last few weeks, and it’s making it more difficult for emergency services to communicate effectively in some areas. I saw anti-vaxx and anti-5G graffiti on a road bridge and in a railway tunnel today. This shit is a problem.
I don’t have much more to say at the moment. I thought having more time to write would fizz me up with ideas, but instead I’m slipping into a peaceful, slightly sad stupor. Apparently, so are all the other people I’ve been tapping for information, and so my attempts to chronicle the lockdown are going very slowly. Hopefully I’ll have some stories for you soon from key workers, and from lockdowns around the world, but time feels bent out of shape at the moment.
I’ll leave you with a video from home. In England, as elsewhere, people have been clapping for the NHS workers. Maybe it’s helping morale; maybe it’s just helping the government to paper over the cracks of an underfunded healthcare system. I really don’t know. All I know is, the folks working in our hospitals and clinics deserve a fucking hand.
‘Til next time (and Remain Indoors),
From Your Correspondent in Lockdown.
1- if you’re not British and not familiar, the green belt is the area of exurban land and countryside around the outskirts of London where new building is restricted. With London growing by hundreds of thousands of people each decade, it doesn’t really work anymore, but it’s much loved.
2- to anyone who would listen.
Combatting COVID-19: An Interview with Virologist George Lomonosoff
Last Thursday, I interviewed virologist George Lomonosoff, an expert in the use of plants to express and produce therapeutic molecules for vaccines and diagnostic tests. We talked about the current crisis, the search for a vaccine, and his laboratory’s work to produce reliable coronavirus testing kits. In a few places, I’ve added notes to explain a couple of scientific terms and add context; you’ll see those [in blue]. Continue reading “Combatting COVID-19: An Interview with Virologist George Lomonosoff”
First Fear, then Boredom (Britain in Lockdown, Part 2)
We’ve had one week in lockdown so far. Very soon, I’ll be bringing you an in-depth interview with a virologist, and hopefully some shorter ‘fireside chats’ with some key workers and people affected by the crisis. While I’m dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, I decided to reflect on how life has changed so far. Continue reading “First Fear, then Boredom (Britain in Lockdown, Part 2)”
Infinite Beaches and the End of the Road (Britain in Lockdown, Part 1)
We got sadder as the weekend wore on. Partly it was the sadness of the shuttered shops and empty streets, partly it was the vague sense of guilt that hemmed in our actions, as we tried to work out what we could do without being risk magnifiers for the NHS. Mostly it was the realisation that we were in this for the long haul, that soon we would be bunkered down in different towns, with no plans for summer. The cold wind off the Scottish coast ate into us, and left us lost for words. Continue reading “Infinite Beaches and the End of the Road (Britain in Lockdown, Part 1)”
Year of the Pandemic
Of all the forms the next crisis could have taken- global war in the Middle East or the Baltic, far right takeover, unsustainable debt, climate catastrophe- I really hadn’t expected ‘a somewhat worse version of the flu’. Yet, here we are. My trip to Bratislava just got cancelled by the Slovakian government, which has closed its borders to all but essential foreign travellers. It’s doubly annoying because I booked it spontaneously after a few drinks, and I was revelling in my own freewheeling insouciance. Still, the government’s got bigger things to think about than my holidays. I can’t say I blame them for being afraid. Continue reading “Year of the Pandemic”