What a difference a day makes. Yesterday, in front of a television audience of some 27 million people, the prime minister announced that the UK was now on lockdown.
People would be allowed out once a day to exercise alone or with a member of their household and for food shopping. Public parks would be kept open, but all other non-essential shops, facilities and entertainments would be closed. People were urged to work from home where at all possible. Outdoor gatherings of more than two people were banned.
This morning, during my government-sanctioned run shortly after 7am, the change was palpable. The streets were much quieter and those people I did encounter (mostly other runners and dogwalkers) were generally careful about giving each other space. Several times along the sea front, I or the person approaching stepped off the path onto the shingle in order to maintain the minimum 2m distance judged necessary to prevent the transmission of Covid-19.
The experience was strange, but the atmosphere was oddly amicable and peaceful, with many people smiling in a comradely way and one regal old lady sitting on a wall issuing greetings to everyone who passed.
Later, I heard similar reports from friends, who told me that, although it was eerie seeing playgrounds empty, and shops and cafés shut on one of the first sunny days of the year, there was a sense of calm that has been sorely lacking lately. News footage from supermarkets that have been offering a one-in-one-out policy suggests that the tightening of restrictions has also done a lot to curb the panic buying that has been a problem since the beginning of the month.
It’s strange. If you had told me a month ago that the removal of many of my liberties would have improved my state of mind, I would have been appalled. But the truth is, it is a relief not to have to worry about what is and what is not acceptable. The restrictions have proved liberating in that they have supported people to protect themselves and done a lot to minimise risk. I no longer fear that a trip to buy food could require me to act like a weirdo in order to safeguard myself and others.
Freedom – at least for now – really is a state of mind.