Seven weeks after imposing lockdown measures across the country, Boris Johnson stood at the podium for the daily update last week and set out his five-stage plan to ease the restrictions that had kept most of us inside, away from family and friends and struggling to understand a turn of events we would normally only see in disaster movies. Stay Home had been replaced with Stay Alert, which was confusing and definitely needed the clarification that followed over the next few days, and a list of these new freedoms came into play.
Initially, all I heard was a lifting of the restriction that had allowed us to see only the people we had chosen to quarantine with. Admittedly this new rule meant only one other person at an acceptable social distance and in an open space that was not our own garden (for those lucky enough to have one) but my spirits soared, and in that moment I realised just how much I had missed the physical presence of the important people in my life. With the virtual calls and Zoom gatherings that we had so inventively been making do with no longer quite so necessary, I literally set about organising a dog walk with different friends each day!
For so many – apart from the obvious bewilderment and fear as the rate of infection and death toll steadily increased – this pandemic has been about loneliness. Interestingly, a survey carried out by the Mental Health Foundation in April found that young people between the ages 18 – 24 were most affected by the isolation of this outbreak. But across the generations there are so many feeling bereft at the loss of physical contact and the loneliness of social isolation from friends and relatives. The more vulnerable elderly who cannot see their children or grandchildren, those working abroad and feeling disconnected in a foreign country, new mothers who can’t share the huge adjustment with other new mothers, those living alone, school and university students so used to working alongside others – the list is endless.
Talking to the people we care about through a small screen might give brief respite from this isolation, but for many it has only served to highlight a basic human instinct – our need to be physically around others. It’s small wonder then that parks, woodlands and opens spaces across the country have been abundant with people permitted to socialise again, two by two, strategically distanced, with a friend or family member they haven’t physically seen since all of this began. I am one of them and I don’t need to tell you how good it feels! There were no Zoomed blurry edges or delayed responses. No awkward silences. I can see their faces, read their expressions, smile at their mannerisms again and just enjoy some laughter at a time when there really has been very little to laugh about. There was a tiny glimmer of normality.
Of course, this ‘roadmap to get Britain out of lockdown’ brought with it other new guidelines to lift some restrictions – slightly confusing, inconsistent and begs some questions. Anyone unable to work from home could attempt to return to the workplace, but should try to avoid public transport – an interesting concept for the many without cars or bikes in large cities and towns. A social distance of 2 metres should be adhered to at all times – something virtually impossible for Londoners who do need to use public transport, particularly when Transport for London have not yet reintroduced fully operational services. The property industry opened its doors again with those looking to move now able to view a potential new house – a bewildering notion when we are still unable to invite any friends or family members into our homes. And there were more – but you get the gist.
I know there are scientifically led reasons behind these inconsistencies. It’s a delicate balance between saving lives, safeguarding livelihoods and rebooting the economy. If we continue to see a decline in the devastating statistics and start to move through each phase, maybe the irregularities within each new rule will become clear to us. It’s a precarious path, it’s not over and we have no idea if it will all work out – but we do need this hope. In the meantime, as we go into the second week of these new guidelines, for many the loneliness will be starting to lift. The anglers, the tennis players and the golfers can get back out there! And I am going to enjoy this new freedom and savour just how good it feels simply seeing my friends again, one by one – at a distance.