A murky day here on the south coast. From my writing-room window, the white cliffs look drab and unimpressed with the world.
As well they might. It’s been a week of profound change in the UK: yesterday the prime minister announced that schools will close indefinitely from tomorrow afternoon as part of the efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus.
For some people, the immediate future has already altered drastically. In addition to the more than 100 families that have so far lost people to the disease, numerous freelance workers have had months of bookings cancelled. Some are facing extreme hardship.
Meanwhile, many of those in permanent employment are living with the possibility of losing their jobs or being forced to take unpaid leave.
I am one of the lucky ones. As most of my work is either self-generated or home-based, things, so far, remain fairly normal for me. I continue to write my next novel, compose articles, mentor authors by phone and online, edit texts, answer emails and read as widely as I can. Were it not for the absence of meetings, speaking events and social engagements in my diary for the next two months, it would be possible to believe nothing has changed at all.
While my health and the restrictions allow, I’m still also able to get out to exercise. My usual running route along the seafront, early in the morning or in the middle of the day, rarely brings me into contact with many people.
Yesterday, however, I saw something that brought me up short. Running through the village of Sandgate at around 1pm, I glanced through the windows of a café.
The place was busy. Most of the tables were full of people drinking coffee or eating lunch, much as usual.
I’m not about to get into the rights and wrongs of hospitality businesses staying open or of people patronising them.
Nevertheless, the sight of the bustling eatery sparked an interesting reaction in me: surprise and uneasiness, mingled with a strange relief. If all these people were out and about, doing something as ordinary as ordering a sandwich in a café, I found myself thinking, things couldn’t be that bad.
I think I’d been holding onto something similar in regard to schools being open. If it was judged acceptable for children to gather in their hundreds, then the risk must not be too great. The decision yesterday shifted that for me.
It also made me wonder about the effect of rules and restrictions on the way we human beings think.
As mentioned above, my normal life is fairly cloistered. Much as I enjoy a lot of people’s company, self-isolation-lite is my default setting. If, however, I were a more outgoing person with a job that regularly brought me into contact with many others, I might easily have been lulled into continuing my patterns as normal by the fact that schools were operating on a business-as-usual basis.
Laws, rules and restrictions, it turns out, have implications for more than the specific issues for which they are designed to legislate. They make statements about the kind of society we are. They tell us what is reasonable. They provide templates that we automatically apply to other situations and use to justify our choices.