Lockdown Day 142 – Winter is… approaching

It’s a shock to realise that it is over 140 days since I took the option to work from home because of the pandemic. I knew I would be away for a while, but I honestly expected things to be mostly back to normal during the summer. The Government has now has given up making any promises about an end to the crisis, let alone talking about ‘normality in twelve weeks’.

I’m struggling with how to live in this new world. Lockdown was relatively easy, as it was temporary and straightforward. All that was asked of most of us was to stay home. Now, we need to decide how to approach the current situation. How do we balance the need for human contact with the dangers of Covid-19?

(A good friend of mine has been suffering from ‘long-tail Covid’ and it is horrific. There is evidence of serious long-term heart and lung issues even after ‘recovery’. The longer I can avoid catching Covid-19, the better – hopefully, until after science has worked out how to limit the disease’s non-lethal effects.).

I was very lucky with the initial lockdown. I have a quiet flat to myself, my parents are relatively safe, and my employer has promised to make no redundancies in 2020. There were difficult points: I personally found the empty shelves very threatening; and, at one point, computer problems threatened to leave me isolated. But those problems are tame compared to most other people.

Winter is on it’s way, with the threat of renewed transmission of the virus. My best friend is moving to Norwich this week, and while I’m very excited about this, I’m also aware that this could leave me isolated. I need to work out how to make connections in the pandemic world, while staying safe.

(Zoom really doesn’t work for me. I spend much of my day on calls for work. And zoom is not a replacement for real-world communication. When you end a zoom call, a flat to myself feels like the loneliest place in the world).

I’m starting to think ahead to Winter. I’m considering what do I need in order to make my house calming and comfortable. I need to invest in a good raincoat for wet-weather winter walks. I’m looking for new people to do my daily walks with. And if the worst comes to the worst, I guess there’s always Animal Crossing.

Lockdown Retreat Day 135: Escape from Brighton

Last weekend was my first overnight trip out of Brighton since lockdown (the last being my hike to Firle and back). I’d originally planned to see my family the weekend of Mother’s Day, but the growing crisis meant that we cancelled.

There’s a game I sometimes play when I’m walking about Brighton, which is to look for signs of the pandemic, seeing how long it is before I can spot something out of the ordinary (or something belonging to the new ordinary, whichever way you want to put it). It’s like the set-dressing for a dystopian future – masks, obviously, rainbows in the windows, adverts on buses for films released at the start of the year. Driving up the M1, approaching the junction to Leicester, the gantries announced that Leicester was ‘ESSENTIAL TRAVEL ONLY’.

When I arrived at my sister’s, things were not entirely normal. I didn’t enter any of the houses, staying in an Airbnb that she runs, and I didn’t touch anyone. I don’t know if we were being pious about the bio-security protocols, since the law would have allowed me to enter my parent’s house or my sister’s, but it seemed safer not to.

It was liberating to be in the countryside, and I fell asleep on a shady bench that first afternoon. It was also good to be around animals: the nervous moorhens, the chickens, a half-feral cat and the dogs. I slept so well at night that I wasn’t awake in time to see the hare or the deer. I felt revitalised by sunlight, flowing fresh water, trees and breezes.

Having said that, sunlight was in short supply. Saturday afternoon it began raining. In the evening, we ate curry under a marquee with water dripping down the sides. It felt and just like being at a festival.

Still the rain wasn’t bad for everyone. I’d driven my sunflower up, as I didn’t want it dying while I was away (this is normal behaviour, right?) I got to give Vicky the Sunflower a new home, repotting her in something larger. She also got to enjoy being outside, which meant experiencing rain for the first time.

One of the best bits of Lord of the Rings is Rivendell. After a various dangers and excitements, the story pauses when Frodo stops off on the Last Homely Home. It’s a strange part of the book, where everything seems to pause.

Frodo was now safe in the Last Homely House east of the Sea. That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, ‘a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep, or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.’ Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear and sadness.

Of course, the downside of a pandemic is that there is no real quest to it for most of us. As the meme joked, we could be heroes by staying indoors and doing nothing. Now I am back in Brighton, I need to think of more exciting things to do than sitting in my flat.

Lockdown Retreat Day 130: Looking towards a hard winter

One of the things that scared me most about lockdown was the lack of a clear exit strategy. A lot of the restrictions have now been lifted, but it feels like a stumbling sort of progress. At the same time, with so many venues closed, beaches and parks are packed, and there’s a relaxed summery mood. We are in the midst of a crisis, but that crisis feels remote. What scares me now is the possibility of a very hard winter coming, and one that we are poorly prepared for.

At the start of the crisis, I was pleased with the government’s handling of things, once they finally took things seriously. I might loathe some of the politicans themselves, but the messaging was clear and the leadership appeared confident. Things have collapsed since then. A succession of obvious errors have made things a lot worse than they needed to be.

An example of this is the rules around masks. It’s obvious that masks won’t make things worse, and the experience of some countries suggests that they may contribute significantly to reduced transmission. We had an announcement that masks should be worn in shops, saying they would be mandatory in ten days time. The reason given for this is that it gives people time to prepare – despite masks being made mandatory on public transport with much less warning. Like the decision to close pubs, the government is fumbling inevitable changes.

While most (sensible) people hope for a vaccine as a permanent solution to the pandemic, that is by no means guaranteed to be possible or timely. It’s vital that the country has effective and responsive test and trace systems to control things in the meantime.

Testing has been a fiasco Data collection has been “primitive”, with senior officials describing it as “not fit for purpose“. The government has suppressed data on the number of people tested, finally declining to publish this information at all going forward – which feels very similar to how the government suppressed graphs showing international comparisons once these became inconvenient.

Tracking is a mess – despite this being one of the most important ways out of the current crisis. The government promised a world-beating test-and-trace system, yet a huge number of people are not contacted in a timely manner. Rather than build on established local tracing expertise, the government opened this work out to private contractors. The overall responsibility for managing the tracing systems has gone to someone whose most notable previous achievement was presiding over the UK’s worst corporate data loss to date. The government also produced an expensive, failed mobile app, which didn’t work for the exact same reasons they were warned about by specialists within the industry.

There appears to have been very little oversight of procurement contracts: The Government spent a staggering £5.5bn on PPE contracts. Shockingly, three of the biggest beneficiaries were companies specialising in pest control, a confectionery wholesaler, and an opaque family fund owned through a tax haven.

In addition, there are significant disincentives for people to be tested. Care workers who test positive face the prospect of losing their wages. One care worker discussed the problem of trying to live on £99.85 statutory sick pay: “I can’t pay my rent with that… I’d have to choose between heating my flat or feeding my kids. Either I live in poverty or I kill my client.” That is on top of the potential negative responses in communities to people testing positive.

We’ve also learned that the country’s chief nurse was dropped from a daily briefing, apparently because she refused to follow the party line on the Dominic Cummings affair: “Aides to the prime minister briefed journalists at the time that she may not have made it to the briefing because she could have been stuck in traffic.

Lockdown was incredibly expensive. It should have bought us time to put world-class systems and policies in place to deal with the virus. Instead, it looks like the outsourced solutions have failed to deliver the outcomes we need.

In recent years, a bad winter flu season has stretched the NHS. It’s summer, and that season feels far off. I’m going swimming in the sea. My homebound life feels normal enough, and Small Batch has reopened. Things no longer feel so strange and threatening (it’s 30 days since I last wrote about my experience of the pandemic). But winter looms in the distance, and I hope it will pass smoothly. But I’m already starting to wonder how I might cope with restrictions and disasters in the short, cold days.

A pandemic artwork on Hove Lawns

At some point in the early hours of Friday morning (10th July), an artwork appeared on Hove Lawns. Tens of thousands of pebbles had been laid out on the east end in the shape of the UK’s official Coronavirus death toll:

It’s a stark and thought-provoking piece of work, placing this horrific number into the midst of a public area. My first response was amazement at seeing each stone had been individually numbered. At first, questions about the piece’s construction were a distraction from its meaning, until that came back with a shock. Each one of these tens of thousands of pebbles represented a life lost.

The following day, on my daily walk, I saw the artist and got talking to someone who described themselves as their ‘gofer’. He said he’d written some of the numbers, an effort that had taken a week’s work to complete. He had burst into tears at one point, he told me, the stark numbers suddenly reminding him of the tattooed numbers at Belsen. That comparison feels problematic to me, but I can understand it.

The piece is confrontational, particularly when we’re being told that it’s our duty to go back to pubs and restaurants; while, at the same time, government ministers say mask-wearing should not be mandatory, even though they might save lives, even though there seems to be little downside. This is just another number we’ve got used to, alongside millions who die of hunger each year.

Another question about the artwork is why that number, which is the official death toll. The Gofer said it was picked because that number was controversial, and the artist wanted people to think about it. Looking at the piece on Friday lunchtime with Kate Shields, we got talking with a couple who told us about their friend. This person had been suffering a variety of conditions related to cancer, but had been marked as dying of coronavirus; and the family felt this was incorrect, that this cause of death was a political move.

Photograph by Kate Shields

The number formed by the pebbles is being updated daily. The shock of the artwork will diminish, and I’m not sure how long it will survive in its current location. Maybe people will encounter the numbered pebbles on the beach in years to come, and wonder who wrote on this pebble, and why?

Back in March, Stephen Powis said of the coming death toll, “If it is less than 20,000… that would be a good result though every death is a tragedy, but we should not be complacent about that

The larger a number, the more difficult it is to reason about.

Social Distancing, Day 100: Re-emerging

This is my 100th day of social distancing, and the 93rd day since the government placed the country under full lockdown.

Back at the start of 2020, I couldn’t imagine something like this lockdown happening. I remember January, driving down the M1 and listening to the news from China, with no thought that it would ever affect me. Now, one in a thousand people have died in Britain, and the economy has been placed under massive pressure. We look to be facing a harder recession than after the financial crash of 2008, the effects of which are still being felt, particularly by people in their twenties.

The number of coronavirus infections has finally fallen to pre-lockdown levels, but it’s a disquieting time. The country can’t sustain further lockdowns without devastating economic effects; but the contradiction between the sternness of late May’s rules and the current anything-goes feel is confusing and stressful.

Yesterday, the government annouced that it was opening the country up and ending the daily briefings. It’s hard not to see the end of the briefings as a way of evading scrutiny. The daily statistics will still be released but government ministers will no longer respond to them. In some ways, the briefing were a problem for the government – it was a place for grand announcements, but also one where they could be held to account. So many of the early causes for optimism has turned out to have little behind them – there was no plan to use the massive numbers of NHS volunteers, the Nightingale hospitals were not needed, and the much-vaunted ventilator schemes were quietly forgotten.

Coronavirus is no less frightening than it was in March. In fact, given what we know about the long-term effects, it’s probably worse. A friend of mine came down with the virus in April. They are still incredibly ill, as they described in an article for the Huffington post. Reading about the effects on a significant numbers of sufferers is terrifying, and we have no idea if these people will ever recover. About 30,000 people might be suffering “long-tail” effects, as well as others whose lungs are permanently scarred. I am certainly very cautious about being exposed to the virus.

As scared as I am, I personally can’t sustain lockdown indefinitely. Being in a social bubble with my friends Rosy and Olive has massively improved my quality of life. I’ve not taken advantage of all the freedoms I have now, but I need to start socialising more (although it won’t be in pubs, as the pub of the future does not sound much fun). The question is how to socialise safely. I’m trying to be cautious rather than scared – there was a lot of talk of how the Cummings incident would lead to a second spike, but none of the pessimistic scenarios of the last few months have occurred – so far.

I’m very lucky, in that lockdown has been far less stressful for me than it has been for most people. Even so, it’s been hard, and I dread a Winter lockdown. But, while the weather is good, I need to get outside, and start doing more socially distant walks. It’s too easy to take the excuse to sit indoors. It’s time to rejoin the world, carefully, and get out of the lockdown mindset.

Distancing Retreat, Day 94: My first lockdown birthday

Aren’t these cupcakes (made by Kitty Peels) incredible? The shading is stunning. They taste amazing too, although I feel a little guilty about eating such works of art.

I’m not a huge fan of birthdays, and having one during lockdown set expectations quite low. I mean, non-essential shops are open, but spa-days, cocktail bars or parties are all out. I decided on a day of watching movies with my social bubble buddies, Rosy and Olive; but I soon realised I’d had enough of drinking while watching films. Meh.

We took a break from the films for the Daily Briefing, led by Culture Secretary Oliver Downden. After skipping over the daily death toll, we were told that today was an exciting day as premiership football was returning. Then Downden annouced that he is engaged in talks with the arts sector to look for a way forward. I’m not sure what the culture secretary has been doing over the last 14-15 weeks, but I assumed that a roadmap for the arts would have been produced long before now. And Downden’s use of the briefing to make a jibe at the leader of the opposition was in poor taste.

I don’t know why people are not very angry with how the British government has handled the pandemic. Today, the NHS track and trace app has been abandoned in favour of the Google/Apple model. Since every developer I know had said since the first announcement that this would be the case, the government should not be allowed to get away with claiming that they “backed both horses” – particularly when they denied doing this repeatedly. We should be told how much money has been wasted on this futile effort.

This is only the latest failure of policy. We have one of the world’s highest death rates, and are predicted to have the worst post-lockdown financial recovery. Quarantine was not put in place in the early stages of the crisis, which may have allowed up to 1,300 infected people into the country. The Track-and-trace programme was abandoned early on. Rather than expand existing local teams who already do track-and-trace locally, a national scheme has been put in place. Contracts have been given to private companies with little oversight. Elderly patients were discharged from hospitals to unprepared care-homes. (These points are summarised in a guardian leader). Our lockdown, which has proved hugely expensive, appears to have had little impact on the progression of the virus compared to countries that applied less harsh restrictions. More attention has been paid to re-opening garden centers than re-opening dentists.

I try to remain optimistic, hoping that the simple measures will keep the virus under control – things such as washing hands and sick people not being forced to go to work. But it looks as if the current government have actually managed to make a horrific situation worse. All the rhetoric and brave promises have delivered very little.

Early on, the government’s rhetoric was based around military metaphors. If the struggle against coronavirus was really a war, at this point we’d be looking to negotiate the terms of a surrender. I will be very surprised if things are back to normal for my next birthday.

Lockdown Retreat, Day 91: Time is Broken

The science fiction I read as a kid often used the idea of time being ‘broken’, with action heroes like Jerry Cornelius and the ABC Warriors fighting to set things right. I find myself recalling the strangeness of these stories when I think of the way time has changed during the pandemic.

This idea of broken time has turned up a lot. There was a meme about how “2020 is a unique Leap Year. It has 29 days in February, 300 days in March, and five years in April“. And then there was a fantastic Youtube sketch by Julie Nolke, where her January self is visited by her future self, from April. It’s disconcerting how history has lurched forwards.

This feeling of broken time is brilliantly captured in the essay, Pandemic Time: A Distributed Doomsday Clock by Venkatesh Rao, a writer who regularly gives good concept. Rao begins by talking about “the sudden dimming of the red supergiant star Betelgeuse”. This star is about 700 light years away, meaning this dimming “actually occurred somewhere around the time the Black Death was making its way around the world”.

This is the starting point for an essay on the “distorted temporality shaped by the progress of COVID-19 across the globe. Like the distorted time around a supergiant star going supernova and collapsing into a black hole, “pandemic time” is anything but normal.

Rao describes the experience well. “Even within a different apartment block, neighbours experience different temporalities“, with some working from home, others home-schooling, some with families separated from loved ones overseas. Rao also talks about how “Older outbreak hotspots are serving as time machines for newer ones.” I have a friend in Italy, and he warned me of the logistical and emotional challenges I was about to face, based on being two weeks ahead in lockdown.

It’s an effort not to just precis the whole essay. One of the most striking sections is the comparison of Chronos, the Greek god of linear measured time, to Kairos, the god of subjective time, or time as opportunity. Roa talks about how Chronos has lost his grip on our world, placing us in “a new epoch ruled by Kairos“. It’s one of the best pieces I’ve read on the pandemic.

We’re now past 12 weeks into lockdown, and the government is desperately trying to get the economy moving again. Permanent lockdown is not an option, as horrifying as the alternative might be. But this goes very much against the advice first received, and the government messaging is confused. Opening up again is a risk, but it is a managed one, and they should be discussing that in a clear, adult manner.

Meanwhile, as a single-adult household, I have finally been allowed to create a ‘social bubble’. I’ve seen my friend Rosy for distanced walks, but being allowed to sit down and share food with her and her daughter is a massive improvement in my quality of life. But we are still a long way from normality and a world ruled again by Chronos.

Distancing Retreat: Day 84

After feeling very strict during April, the consensus around lockdown seemed to collapse in May. On the VE Day bank holiday there were televised gatherings. While they maintained social distancing, it pushed against the simplicity of the ‘Stay Home. Save Lives. Protect the NHS.’ message. Then came the Dominic Cummings affair, which stretched the guidance to meaninglessness.

Among people I know, compliance with lockdown has been high, with everyone was prepared to take the message about saving lives at face value. But when the government don’t seem to believe in the guidance, I feel like a dupe for following it so closely. The case of Tory MP Bob Seely was worse than that of Cummings, but nobody seems to care about that.

We now enter a confused and fearful time as we wait to see what will happen. Will there be a second spike? Or will more specific restrictions prove as effective as a blanket lockdown? That question will be answered simply and maybe brutally in time.

The human costs of lockdown have been significant. Friends who have not qualified for government support are terrified about their future. Others have had difficult housing situations turn impossible. One colleague’s wife returned to India to have their child; travel restrictions meant he couldn’t follow her. While these costs are worth paying to save lives they relied on proper preparations for the future being put in place.

Remember back in May, when the Prime Minister promised we would turn the tide on coronavirus within 12 weeks? We would “send coronavirus packing in this country“. There would be an antibody test “as simple as a pregnancy test“.

Instead we have a track-and-trace scheme that’s not fit for purpose, and confusion over the NHS tracking app. I’m guessing the country cannot afford another wide-scale lockdown anyhow. Even though the deaths are still terrifyingly high, we will be forced towards normal life one way or the other. We have squandered the huge financial cost of lockdown. Some people I know have not qualified support while some people on furlough are working two jobs. And we have not used the time the lockdown made available to prepare for the future.

Personally, lockdown has been less difficult for me than for many people. I’ve taken advantage of living in a world without plans to think about my life. I’ve emerged calmer and less anxious. My only regret is getting through lockdown without making banana bread.

I am extremely nervous about what is to come. Aside from the deaths due to Covid-19, there are terrifying long-term health implications for some sufferers. But for now it feels like the first phase of this has come to a close, and it’s time to live within the new normal.

Retreat Day 68: Happiness in Lockdown

This morning, on my daily walk, I saw an origami heart on a lamp-post:

I’ve been feeling very happy this week. Obviously, the world around me is not ideal – but that was true before the lockdown too. I’d have preferred to be in a world where I lived in a nice house in the country, with a couple of dogs and some water flowing through my garden.

Part of this happiness comes from having some time off drinking and live news. Last weekend, I felt quite despondent and ended up drinking too much whiskey. This week I’ve been focussing on my immediate environment a lot more; and trying to live the best I can given the constraints. It’s been an obscene amount of time without physical contact with anyone, far too long since sharing food with another human.

But I am finding ways to live. I’m enjoying meeting new people through things like Not for the Faint-Hearted and Slow Yoga Club. I have managed to get everything I need without queueing at supermarkets. I’ve even obtained frivolous luxuries, like new Muji pens and my favourite breakfast cereal.

My life is quieter and smaller, which I like. I’m being very protective of my time, turning down a lot of zoom calls and opportunities to meet up for distanced walks. My writing continues and my current project is tighter than anything I’ve worked on before (in part due to having more time to focus). And I’ve been reading some amazing books, including Emily St John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel.

I know I am very lucky to have a safe and stable situation. I hope that we can all get back to normal soon. But, in the meantime, I’m doing my best to be happy.

And the post continues to bring interesting things.

Retreat, Day 61: False Summit?

A false summit is when you’re climbing a hill, only to reach the top and see a larger hill was hidden behind it. As wikipedia puts it, they “can have significant effects on climbers’ psychological states by inducing feelings of dashed hopes or even failure“. There’s one at Beachy Head that’s caught me out a couple of times. I’ve walked to the top, glad I’m almost done, only to see I have a little further to go.

The Government announcement on Sunday seemed full of confusion. While the five tests for leaving lockdown weren’t yet met, the restrictions are being eased. People can meet for socially distanced activities, although the parks and promenade are already too busy. Garden centers are re-opening, but there is only the most basic dental care available, extractions for everything. And this, despite the cases being higher than they were pre-lockdown, and the disease being very close to spreading again.

The Daily Mirror has been trumpeting a paper claiming that 29% of people on the UK might already have the virus, and other claims say that London might have achieved herd immunity. I hope that is the case, and that I am worrying over nothing. But, just to be safe, I am going to continue my lockdown as before and see what happens. I can understand that business needs to start moving, but maybe the time since lockdown could have been spent coming up with better plans for this inevitable moment.

(To say nothing of the fact that the government has only just started hiring the teams of tracers needed if we are to return to normal life. A long period of continued disruption, and maybe even a second peak lie ahead of us).

But I’m comfortable enough in lockdown, despite the background of doom and deteriorating hairstyles. Today was the first day I managed to sleep past 5:30am since this started. Small Batch continue to supply me with coffee. And I am loving Emily St. John Mandel’s new book, the Glass Hotel. The slow, melancholy mood of the book suits these times.

Tomorrow, I am off for my first hike in some time, walking a segment of the South Downs Way. It will be good to get out of town for a while.