Lockdown Day 220 – A Souvenir of the First Lockdown

One of the most interesting things about algorithms is the strange mistakes they make, which can be sometimes spooky. Like the time when Facebook made jaunty videos about people’s years, which blithely incorporated funerals and house fires among the celebrations. Or the strange writing collected on the AI Weirdness Blog.

Google photos draws up all the photographs taken on my phone in order to learn how to market web advertising more successfully. Sometimes google suggests new services or goods, such as unlimited storage space. Or an automatically generated photo book.

Google offered me a book of my best photos from Spring 2020. This was a time when I travelled less than any time in my entire life. Lockdown confined me to just a few miles from my house. It seemed a weird time to memorialise. The photos are mundane and strange and I had to buy a copy as a souvenir.

I sometimes wonder how I will remember this period. Already, the frustrations are fading and the summer is about walks and being outdoors. I remember the sunrises better than the insomnia.

Lockdown Day 206 – Resenting the Threats of a Brighton Lockdown

A Whatsapp message from Kate, just after three yesterday afternoon, linked to a tweet from the local council. The city’s covid alert level had gone from yellow to amber, the last stage before the government “will declare the city an area of national concern“.

Along with the cutesy picture of a knitted coronavirus, the council informs us that “We all now need to make extra efforts”. What efforts? I’m genuinely not sure what else we should be doing.

My reaction to this news is not fear at getting the virus; despite the awful effect it’s had on friends of mine. My reaction is not determination to ride this out.

My main reaction is anger. Throughout the summer, the government has made foolish errors and failed to prepare for any rise in cases. Tracking and tracing is a joke, an expensive and confused bureaucracy that is unable to count cases, or tell us the number of people being tested. Local lockdowns are not working. Enforcement of the existing rules, particularly around the 10pm curfew is a mess. Nobody can keep track of the current rules people should follow, including government ministers. Messaging has been incompetent, with exemptions to the rules for grouse hunting, or certain government advisors. And just this week, the Prime Minister was telling us to go out more and support our local cinemas.

Part of my resentment is selfish, at the threat to my own plans. But a lot of the anger comes of being six months into this crisis with no clear exit strategy and no real plan from the government. My job is stable, and I can’t imagine the fear and uncertainty for those working in local hospitality businesses (most of the cinemas in the town didn’t survive the news of the new Bond film being postponed).

I guess the only thing to do is prepare to withdraw once more, and check those around me are OK. But I am so tired of this mess.

Lockdown Day 197 – Flash-forwards

Flash forwards are a powerful story-telling technique, which work particularly well in TV or comics. A character is given prophetic glimpses of their future, a scene that doesn’t fully make sense at the time. The best example I’ve seen of this was in Babylon 5. Viewers were shown the death of two characters was in the first episode. The question became how events would lead to this moment, and what the context would be.

I’ve been thinking about flash-forwards in terms of the pandemic. Walking down the street now, I sometimes pass people in masks without thinking about how easily the world has switched. Other times I have a sort of jamais-vu where the strangeness of it all becomes apparent. The posters and other background details remind me of the subtle set-dressing in the film Children of Men. These items work in the film to defamiliarise us, to show us the different effects of the catastrophe (which, in that film, was universal infertility).

I had a moment of this jamais-vu in the office on Friday, when I realised how strange the scene in front of me was. I wondered how I would have interpreted this moment if I’d seen it as a flash-forward a year ago.

Our office is huge, and dominated by a large atrium. Of the four floors, two are in darkness, even though it is daylight outside. The main communal space has been roped off. The office is mostly empty, many of the chairs covered in plastic, out of use for now. Only a few people are in view. All of them are wearing facemasks.

The scene would make no sense to my 2019 self. Where is everyone? Why is a large corporate office empty? We have fallen into a new world.

Lockdown Day 195 – Back to Working From Home?

On Tuesday lunchtime, my second day back in the office, the Prime Minister announced a new set of measures against coronavirus. This included saying that anyone who can work from home should. Without a command to close offices or restrict public transport, it’s left to companies and employees to decide what to do – particularly in those offices that have been made safe to work in.

It was actually good to go back to the office. It felt strange, and a little dangerous, but I liked being somewhere different, and I liked taking the first steps towards normality.

Way back, on March 19th, when the Prime Minister announced “we can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks and I’m absolutely confident that we can send coronavirus packing in this country”. The latest restrictions are said to be set for six months. Given the government’s failure to hit the targets it sets for itself, we are likely in for a long haul.

This lockdown feels a lot more sour than the first one. It is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that we wasted the time gained through the initial lockdowns and restrictions. We face the same problems six months later, but from a more precarious position. Winter will bring dark days and bad weather; and the economy is reeling from the shock of the pandemic, with the potential problems of Brexit yet to come.

There was some sense of consensus for the first lockdown, a feeling that we were ‘all in it together’. That very phrase was used by chancellor Rishi Sunak, echoing George Osbourne’s description of austerity. Despite Sunak’s assurances, the pandemic is affecting different people in different ways. Some people are suffering greatly, already living in cramped or undesirable housing. Meanwhile, there have been profiteers. Tiny companies were paid vast sums for PPE that was not delivered. Accenture received £850,000 for ten week’s work on the government’s failed contract-tracing app. Dido Harding has been promoted despite failing to establish decent contact tracing (James O’Brien has compared her to those same ‘unelected bureaucrats’ that the Brexiters were trying to remove).

At a time when consensus is important, it’s easy to perceive a sense of rules being applied unfairly. Despite NHS’s 111 line told sick parents to maintain quaratine, while MPs defended Cummings’ trip to Durham as what any decent parent should have done. Tory MP Bob Seely attended a barbecue held by Richard Tice (Brexit party chairman) when the mixing of households was banned – no action was taken. And then there is the exemption for grouse-hunting to restrictions for groups meeting – so important that the Covid-19 Operations sub committee scheduled a special meeting for this.

The new restrictions announced for England this week still allow households to mix, something that is banned elsewhere in the UK. I expect that further measures will be announced soon – in a recent article, Tim Harford quoted a statisticians view that “Every week before lockdown cost us five to eight weeks at the back end of the lockdown.” These are hard decisions for a government to make, and I certainly don’t envy the people involved. But it’s hard not to feel like the government is floundering, and there seems to be no way out of rolling restrictions.

Lockdown Day 190 – Back to the Office

Today, was my first day in the office since I started working from home, 190 days ago.

I didn’t need to go back – staff can work remotely until at least July 2021 – but I needed a change of scene. Being in the house so much was becoming claustrophobic, and I say that as someone who loves remote working and loves their flat. I have a small train commute, and it felt good to return to the world.

Of course things are very different now. The train ride felt dangerous, particularly with the recent spike in cases. I ended up at the office a little earlier than planned, meaning I was the first one in. A lot of effort had been made to welcome people back and it felt easier than expected. The mostly empty office building couldn’t help seeming a little eerie though. It had the same sort of haunted feel as Elizabeth St John Mandel’s novel The Glass Hotel.

Today was a tiny slice of normality, and very welcome. However, there is an announcement by the Prime Minister scheduled for tomorrow, and I’m expecting that to include people who can do so being told to work from home. We shall see.

The current situation is frightening and depressing and it didn’t need to be this way. The government has frittered away the time before winter, failing to set up decent tracking and tracing. The country’s mood is sour compared to March, riven by suspicion, conspiracy theory, and frustration. As it comes closer, winter begins looking colder and grimmer.

We need a new calendar!

One of the strange things about the pandemic is not having plans for the future. My calendar used to be packed. Even as the world starts to recover, I still have mostly blank squares ahead of me.

Someone joked about how Groundhog Day in the pandemic wouldn’t work, as it would be days before Bill Murray’s character realised things were repeating. In Brighton, we’ve lost the normal markers of the year. The Fringe Festival and Pride were cancelled, along with various smaller events and parties. Some people have joked that we in an endless March, and there is an online calendar suggesting that the date is March 179th 2020 .

It got me thinking about something John Higgs wrote about the Celtic calendar in his book Watling Street.

The old Celtic calendar comes from a time when life did not change rapidly… it divides time up into chunks of about six weeks, each separated by a party, which is an agreeably human way to think about your life. It tells you that things more than six weeks away are things that you don’t need to worry about yet.

That sounds quite promising. The end of this pandemic is more than six weeks off, but maybe it’s best not to worry about exactly how far beyond the horizon it is. And a celebration every six weeks would certainly help to break up time until then. As John writes, “The Celtic calendar doesn’t come with quite the same level of stress and anxiety as the Gregorian one.”

There are lots of other possibilities that can be brought in. Some friends of mine bought a French Revolutionary Calendar, and celebrated Jour de la vertu with a running race. Rosy always makes sure to celebrate Patrick Swayze’s birthday on August 18th. (I missed it this year, but will be watching Roadhouse on Netflix this weekend). November brings Diwali, which will be difficult for some of my colleagues this year, but I will try to do something to mark it for my team. And, as an Erisian, I could also add in The Discordian Calendar.

But the Celtic Calendar looks like a good basic rhythm for pandemic time. The next celebration is the September Equinox on September 22nd (also the first day of the French Republican Calendar). This is known as Mabon and is a harvest festival. In a world without crowds we need new new festivals – possibly asynchronous ones that allow people to gather and meet in abstract ways. But we still need to celebrate.

Pandemic Retreat, Day 162

The 150-day mark passed relatively unnoticed, and soon it will be 6-months since I stopped going into work because of the pandemic. I keep coming back to the government’s blithe reassurances that things would be back to normal within 12 weeks. Now, it’s obvious that things will not be over by Christmas.

I think I’ve said already that the first stage of this was relatively easy for me. (If I have said it before, this reflects how repetitive things have got). Life was certainly simple. Since June things have felt strange and alienating. In some ways the world is bounding forward, but it’s only pretending to be normal. It’s easy to feel bleak about the future.

Track and Trace was one of the important routes back to normality, but it has been a disaster. Using a centralised, outsourced system instead of bolstering existing local resources seemed a strange decision. It definitely hasn’t worked well. Local tracing has been used in hotspots and these are achieving contact rates of about 98% compared with 50-75% from the national organisation, depending on which reports you take.

Meanwhile, Dido Harding continues to fail upwards, the mess of track and trace being rewarded with a promotion to run a new body replacing Public Health England. Reorganising departments is an old trick for failing governments, since it looks decisive, but I’m not filled with confidence. Harding’s main qualification for the job appears to be connections via horse-racing – and somehow being involved in one of the worst data leaks in UK history does not count against her.

On top of the current crisis, we have the deadline of 31st December, when the current EU transition period ends. While there’s a lot of talk about a last-minute deal, I’m not sure how so many complicated issues can be solved quickly. The Prime Minister has been on holiday too, missing the exam crisis. Johnson has form for holidaying in the middle of a crisis, as shown by his disappearance during the London riots while he was mayor.

My personal part of the pandemic feels bleak right now. I’m doing my best to prepare for winter, planning for cosy rather than confined, and catching up with friends for strolls. My work recently announced that staff would not return to work before July 2021. There’s a long way to go in this crisis.

Among the doom-scrolling, I do follow Toby Young’s Lockdown Sceptics blog. It’s an odious site. The jibes at left-wingers, PC and trans-rights suggest that Young’s resistance to lockdown is less important than furthering his other agendas. The only reason I sift through the bile and conspiracy theory is that it does turn up the occasional hopeful report. I tend to feel quite grim about how this crisis will develop, but it’s good to see that there are also less pessimistic scenarios for the future. I like to read about these deus ex machina solutions even while preparing for things to grind on for months more.

The main issue for me at the moment is balancing the risk of illness against the need to get out of the house. I’ve been enjoying my hikes, while being very cautious about meeting people indoors. When I was expecting things to last three to six months, it was easy to plan. Living in a world where the pandemic could continue in some form for years is more difficult.

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.