Tag Archives: Lockdown

They do things differently in The Netherlands!

It’s bright and sunny in Cardiff today and the news is all about fears of a mass migration of people to beauty spots and coastal resorts following the relaxation of lockdown restrictions in England last Sunday. Regular readers of this blog will know that the restrictions on non-essential travel (including for exercise) remain in place in Wales; but even where the law has been changed in England, many local authorities and other stakeholders (including the National Trust and national parks) are urging people not to visit previously popular tourist destinations. The concern is that many of these places will be inundated and that social distancing will be impossible as a result.

In what can only be described as a very strong contender for the group Darwin Award 2020, police in London made several arrests at a rally in Hyde Park protesting against the continuation of any restrictions. In what is sure to become a case study of A level ethics classes in the future, this group of imbeciles apparently hold the view that their right to free speech and freedom of movement trumps the right to life of those who will inevitably contract the virus in a second peak if restrictions are eased too quickly and without appropriate test, trace and track arrangements in place. The police officers called to break up the demonstration (and who themselves were put in harm’s way as a result) showed remarkable restraint in all the circumstances. I’m not normally one to advocate violence, but a telescopic baton wielded at full stretch would be about 2m, and deployed sharply to the top of the head might actually knock a bit of sense into these idiots.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world, Italy is making arrangements to remove restrictions on internal and international travel to and from the country from early in June; Greece is preparing to re-open its beaches; and top-flight football has returned to Germany (albeit behind closed doors).

And then there’s Holland. Respect to the Dutch and credit where it’s due – that’s some feat while keeping 1.5 metres apart.

If the message is the medium, then we’re all following the herd

Marshall McLuhan first coined the phrase “the medium is the message” in his 1964 book Understanding Media : The Extensions of Man. In essence, his theory boils down to the assertion that the way a message is presented, and the media through which it is promoted, is more important than the message itself.

Sometimes it can be difficult to think what to write about in a daily blog that has no specific theme or focus, but which tries to reflect the very broad (and occasionally equally shallow!) range of interests of its author. Today is not one of those days. This evening, the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson (and there’s a start to a sentence that still seems incredible) will address the nation on the outcome of the latest review of the coronavirus restrictions. It’s billed as an update to the UK, although this insultingly misses the point that responsibility for review and update in Wales and Scotland rests with the devolved governments in those countries. The First Ministers in both countries have already announced an extension of current restrictions for a further three weeks. So tonight’s ‘UK’ announcement will really be an England-only one.

Bizarrely, given the grave political, economic and governance implications of the subject-matter, the Prime Minister will present his update not to Parliament (where he can be questioned and clarifications sought) but in a televised address direct to the public. We have also now learned that much of the content has been pre-recorded rather then being presented live. Consider this through McLuhan’s lens, and the conclusion must be that Johnson and his advisers wish to portray him as the heroic leader, connecting directly with his people, brushing aside the inconveniences of due process and parliamentary sovereignty. This was a PM elected on a wave of presidential populism.

But he is also the ultimate contradiction – the Old Etonian anti-establishment figure; the man of the people born into privilege and wealth; the serial liar entrusted with telling us the truth about the most severe crisis to face us in over 100 years; the man who boasted of shaking hands with everybody when all the advice was to practice social distancing; the leader of a government that urged us to Stay Home to protect the NHS and then travelled from hospital past the door of his official London residence to his country retreat. And it is becoming increasingly clear that Johnson can only remain in power for as long as he is able to hide away from scrutiny. His appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions this week was a car-crash for the Prime Minister. Confronted with a Leader of the Opposition trained in exposing the lies and half-truths of witnesses in a courtroom, Johnson’s personal brand of bluster and what-ho was cruelly exposed. Don’t be surprised if our Prime Minister is seen rather less frequently at the dispatch box in the weeks to come. His advisers will be busy finding pressing matters of state to keep him out of the sights for Keir Stammer to the fullest extent possible.

Coming back to the announcement tonight. What can we expect? It’s actually quite difficult to predict with any degree of certainty. From the tone of UK tabloid press towards the end of last week, it’s clear that the briefing that reporters were receiving then was about a radical loosening of restrictions and a desire to get the economy moving again. The horrified backlash against this early messaging from the government’s own scientific advisers, clinicians in the NHS, and the devolved governments in Cardiff and Edinburgh saw some Olympic-standard rowing back from the poor foot-soldiers sent over the top to try to calm things down in the daily briefings on Friday and Saturday. Protests from a succession of Cabinet Ministers that we should not expect too much in the way of change in the short term, appeared to be too little too late as people the length and breadth of the UK decided that the tabloid encouragement was all they needed to party like it was 1945 on the VE day anniversary on Friday.

What we do know is that the key messaging around the public response to the pandemic will change. The fact that we found this out through the Prime Minister’s press employer, The Sunday Telegraph, rather than through an announcement to parliament or even as part of the formal address this evening, perhaps says a lot about the concerns that exist in Number 10 about rumblings in the Tory Party questioning their man’s competence. It’s not referred to colloquially as the Torygraph for nothing, and its the nearest thing we have to a house paper for the Party.

The messaging for the first seven weeks of the lockdown restrictions has been simple and compelling.

The use of the red and yellow ‘danger’ colours and the pre-eminent focus on the NHS and what we could all do to ensure that our health services could deal with the demands that the virus was placing on it, reinforced the otherwise vacuous and banal statements that we were all in this together. Whilst we now know that we’re all in the same swimming pool, it’s also very clear that if you’re older, male, overweight, and/or from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background, then you’re definitely down at the deep end. And if you’re own or more of these and work in the health or social care setting, then you’re also wearing lead bathers. Nevertheless, the message was clear. It passed the Ronseal test – there was no ambiguity.

Compare that to the new messaging that has been unveiled today ahead of the formal announcement this evening

Notice the change in the colouring – the subliminal messaging moves from the prohibitive red (stop; pay attention; danger) to the permissive green (have a look at this if you want to, but no worries otherwise, it’s all under control). The words themselves have no meaning in the context of the crisis. In fact, so ambiguous is “Stay Alert” that the government has already had to issue an explanation. And – guess what – essentially “Stay Alert” STILL means “Stay Home”. So why has this changed? And what on earth does Control the Virus mean to the majority of the population? Are we supposed to tame it with a chair and a whip like some circus lion? Do we employ Jedi mind powers to turn it away from us?

It’s not enough to simply put this down to incompetence or ineptitude. There are too many smart people working behind the scenes here for this change in the messaging to be accidental or poorly thought through. On the contrary, what we are seeing here is an elaborate and highly strategic promotion of the same approach that formed the basis of policy prior to 19th March 2020. This is a herd immunity strategy that hopes that if enough of us contract the virus and survive, then it will die out because we will be immune to it and there will be insufficient new ‘hosts’ to sustain it. The reason for lockdown over the past seven weeks was because cases in London and the south east were increasing exponentially at a rate that threatened to overwhelm health services there. Do not be fooled by the sideshow of Nightingale Hospitals at the Excel and other locations – these are a classic distraction. The threat to the health service is only partly about physical assets – much more acute is the chronic shortage of trained specialists – doctors, nurses, allied professionals. There was never going to be sufficient capacity in the system to staff 500 high dependency beds in a converted exhibition centre (just as there won’t be to look after patients at the Millennium Stadium or any of the other pop-up critical care facilities).

Now that cases in London have declined (and now that the much larger number of cases in London and the subsequent decline can be used to skew the presentation of the data on the daily graphs so that it looks as though numbers are coming down everywhere), it is quite clear that the political calculation is that herd immunity is back on the agenda.

The briefing to news media last week (ahead of a bank holiday weekend) was deliberately designed to create the impression that going out, meeting people outside your household, relaxing social distancing were all ok again now. The shift from red to green on the new messaging reinforces that subliminal messaging. The Prime Minister’s message this evening will be presented in serious tones, will warn of the dangers of losing control of the virus in a second wave, will again stress the importance of managing things so that our NHS is not overwhelmed.

None of that will be heard.

The message is the medium. The medium is green for go. Relax, go back to what you were doing before (just wash your hands a bit more). Stay alert, obviously – but no, to be honest, we have no idea what that means either, so we’ll interpret it as we see fit. Oh! and by the way, if this all goes wrong, it’ll be your fault for not being alert and controlling enough.

Paradoxically, the shift from a clear, community-based commitment to staying home, to something which is much more like every person for themselves, has at least had a galvanising effect on me. I genuinely hope that I’m wrong, but following the precautionary principle, I’ve now decided that the inevitable second wave of the virus will be much more severe and widespread than anything we’ve seen to date. As an older, overweight male, there is only one thing that I can do to reduce my risk if I should contract the virus. I’m back out and running with the aim of dragging my BMI back towards more medically acceptable levels. If I’m going to be in the herd, I don’t want to be the fat one at the back!

Invest in time and spend it wisely

The longer we are in lockdown, the more philosophical I become about notions of time. It’s been seven weeks now, and in some respects that time has flown by. It’s the end of the first full week of May, and April seems to have passed in a blur. It’s equally true though, that there have been occasions when I have had absolutely no idea what day it is. At those times, I haven’t been helped by the comedians on social media who (taking today as an example) post things like : “For those of you who are confused, it’s Thursday today and tomorrow is Bank Holiday Monday!” My head is scrambled enough as it is, without these sorts of tautologies to contend with!

Gandalf

There is a danger that in our desire to come out of lockdown, to move back to something nearer to the normality that existed before March, that we miss the opportunities that are happening in the here and now. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo says to Gandalf : “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” Gandalf’s reply could well be the leitmotif for our times : “So do I”, he says, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Mother Theresa put it even more succinctly : “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” Living for the day, making the most of each moment, looking for the good things that we can take from where we are. These are truisms, probably even clichΓ©s, but they have also helped me to try to make some sense of the bizarre times that we are living through. It’s why I’ve come to appreciate the opportunities to get out into the countryside during my exercise hours; and why I now appreciate the chance to sit in the garden for half an hour at lunchtime enjoying the warmth of the sun on my face. These are privileges that I had previously taken for granted, and that I have now really come to value as a result of lockdown. And I really do appreciate how lucky I am to be able to enjoy these things when the same restrictions are so much harder for those in urban areas with no access to open spaces.

It seems likely that by the end of this coming weekend, we will be starting to emerge from lockdown – however slowly and cautiously. We will be taking our first faltering steps into the ‘new normal’ that will be a world living with coronavirus, rather than one locked down in order to protect ourselves from it. The transition is likely to take several months, and its very likely that things will never quite be what they were. Through it all, its worth remembering the profound words of Anthony Oettinger : “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”

A growing problem…

I wrote yesterday about the Saturday dinner and show/film nights that we have instituted in an attempt to alleviate some of the tedium that otherwise creeps in when every lockdown day is pretty much the same as the one before. J. was on cooking duty last night, and fair play, the food was truly outstanding. We ate like kings.

In truth, we have been eating pretty well since this whole thing started. All three of us like to have a go at cooking, and what I lack in comparison to J. and C.’s culinary expertise, I compensate for with enthusiasm and portion sizes. There is a drawback to this, of course, in the form of an expanding waistline. Whilst we do get out for our state-sanctioned exercise hour most days, I regret that the few calories that I burn off then are but a tiny fraction of the excess that is added by biscuits, flapjacks, sweets and (at least on the last two Saturdays) the amazing puddings brilliantly crafted by J. and C.

It seems that I may not be alone in seeking solace in food during these turbulent times. This Tweet appeared in my timeline this morning :

Having discovered a new Indian restaurant that does deliveries during lockdown, I identify perfectly with the husband in the Tweet. However, what I identify with even more was the further Tweet in answer to the question from one of his wife’s friends who simply asked : “Diet going well then?”

Whilst I haven’t quite got to the furlough stage with my jeans, I am reliably informed by those in my household who know about these things, that my denim trousers are now effectively performing the same function for me as Spanx apparently do for a small proportion of the female population (none of whom I know or are related to me at all). It’s a harsh but (regrettably) fair observation that when wearing my jeans I now have the physique of an Olympic athlete from the waist down, and a Sumo wrestler from the waist up. I’m reminded of one of my favourite June Whitfield lines from Absolutely Fabulous. When Jennifer Saunders’ character argues that there’s a thin person inside her just trying to get out, Whitfield replies : “Just the one, dear?”.

Anyway, enough is enough. From tomorrow, I am embarking on a lockdown boot-camp – with a gradual ramping up of the exercise and a more healthy approach to eating between meals. The slight flaw in this strategy is the eleven chocolate muffins with coffee frosting that I was able to create under J.’s careful guidance this morning in response to her tragic longing for cake. It was a bit of a gamble using wholemeal flour (all we have been able to get in the past 6 weeks) and compensating with baking powder; but I have to say, I’m quite pleased with the outcome.

Chocolate muffins with coffee frosting and Malteser or coffee beans

Now – do I polish them all off before I start the new exercise regime tomorrow? Or do I show some willpower and stretch them out over the week? In the interests of denim preservation, I think some willpower is the only option!