Matthieu returned to Southampton from Oxford yesterday and we all went down to accompany him. At this point I could go back to Leicester, it feels like the moment of emergency has passed, and at the same time it seems like ‘normal life’ will not be returning anytime soon. Not least because everyone is waiting for the economy to collapse once people march back into jobs which don’t exist any more.
The country is now in an uneasy situation where you’re permitted to go outside so long as social distancing is respected, but you still can’t do much apart from food shopping and exercise. I go out every afternoon before the online research group meetings. Every week more and more cars reappear on the road, to the point where last week it looked almost like a normal Wednesday afternoon.
Just over a month ago the motorways were almost empty.
And yesterday the road to Southampton was packed.
The crisis isn’t over, not by a long shot, but if you look outside, there has been a qualitative change. In April you could walk all round the town centre and only pass two or three people, it was effectively abandoned. Now the town centre isn’t exactly busy, but there are people walking around. You don’t see as many people wearing masks and gloves.
One morning a parking inspector from the council came to Jericho. If you had to pick a moment when you could tell things had changed, it was seeing the man doing his rounds and checking all the cars. Sure parking inspectors are important, but they’re not absolutely essential. Society won’t collapse if they decide to stay home for a few weeks.
I contributed to this article comparing the responses to the virus in different European countries. You can discuss the measures taken by governments, and read the statements of political parties, but those don’t tell you how people are feeling. If you were framing it in a more academic language you could talk about lived experience, or the ‘affective’ dimension of crisis.
Here’s what the supermarket sounds like now.
You can hear the regular beeping of items going through the checkout, light chatter. Some geographers might describe this as urban buzz.
The UK government didn’t expect people to follow the rules at first, they were caught by surprise when the public responded with strict adherence. The way I see it, the population voluntarily agreed to go into confinement because we were genuinely afraid. There are a lot of accusations flying around about individuals flouting the rules, but if anything this whole period has shown that people are pretty good at
evaluating risk sensing danger. Everyone has a sense of what is acceptable, everyone except senior government advisers.
There was a time when the number of deaths was doubling every three days, the hospitals were at the limit of capacity, and nobody knew when we would hit the peak. Now that the worst is over for the moment, we understand how bad it can get.
The advice from the government has always been (deliberately) vague, I’m fascinated by the process of intuition going on here. People listen to the words, and they hear what is actually being said. The government spokespeople talk in a calm and measured voice, they will never panic, and somehow we understand. When Italy was at its peak, the BBC showed images of temporary mortuaries being built to deal with the anticipated death toll. We got the message. Now Britain is the worst hit country in Europe, the BBC doesn’t show the temporary mortuaries in this country. You don’t have to see them, you know they’re probably there though.
There is the capacity for mass testing, although it’s reportedly under-utilised. The media are fixated on the accuracy of the testing, as if medical diagnosis produces absolute certainties, not professional estimates. Similarly the track-and-trace programme has stalled, all while the number of new daily cases is slowly dropping.
Despite all the data, we’re still in the dark about what’s going to happen next. Most people I know who work in the NHS are sure there’s going to be a second wave.