And so it begins: schools closed; theatres and concert halls dark; pubs, bars, restaurants, cafes, gyms and leisure centres shut until further notice.
As a parent, my thoughts turn to how all this is going to affect children. I’m lucky: my daughter is still very young and relatively easily amused. Even so, I’m sure that weeks without much contact with other people will have an impact on her and take a toll on her development.
For older children, the challenge could be even greater. Much has been said about the effect that the closures and exam cancellations could have on the prospects of teenagers, as well as on vulnerable kids, for whom school may be the only refuge from neglect or abuse.
But there are also those who were never lucky enough to be in the formal education system to consider. Recently, in my capacity as a fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, I’ve started running a story group at the Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN) centre, a short walk from my house in Folkestone.
The teenagers I’ve been working with there all arrived in the UK without their parents, having fled horrors and, in many cases, spent months in camps like the notorious Calais Jungle. The three hours of Learning for Life sessions (of which my story group is a part) that KRAN provides for them four days a week are often the only regular activities to which these extremely vulnerable young people have access.
Despite this, the kids remain remarkably sparky, hopeful and enthusiastic. (The first session I ran for them focused on the story of Dick Whittington. At the end, I asked whether they, like Dick, had been disillusioned when they arrived in the UK and found the streets weren’t paved with gold, expecting that the sullen reality of this town – where racism and deprivation are rife – would have proved a disappointment. Not at all, they told me. The UK was everything they dreamed of. There was safety here, and law and order, and respect for human rights. They thought it was amazing.)
Now, with the centre closed for all but urgent casework, the KRAN young people have little to do but sit alone in their accommodation and wait. If I were a teenager, I don’t think I’d be able to put up with it for long.
Already, many people their age are defying the advice to stay home. Yesterday, just before the tighter restrictions kicked in, my other half went out to the shops. The centre of town was pretty deserted, he said, but there were groups of teenagers hanging around, looking bored. Possibly coincidentally, in the last couple of days, a window of a closed shop on the old high street has been smashed.
With nothing to do and few other people around, kids like these in small towns like this may find that social distancing permanently changes their behaviour and interpersonal codes in ways that we will all come to regret profoundly.