Last night, the UK prime minister addressed the nation, setting out plans for the next phase of the Covid-19 lockdown. Although little is set to change immediately, the speech proved controversial in many quarters, with the leaders of the UK’s three devolved legislatures, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, all refusing to adopt the new government messaging: ‘Stay alert; control the virus; save lives’ (a shift from the previous ‘Stay home; protect the NHS; save lives’).
Elsewhere, people criticised the statement for putting pressure on the poorer members of society by encouraging those unable to work remotely to return to their jobs – an injunction most likely to affect those in less well-paid, manual employment. Others highlighted the ambiguity and apparent inconsistency of much of what was said, with people being encouraged to take ‘unlimited exercise’ and even drive long distances to beauty spots while still being unable to see relatives and friends.
After the statement aired, the internet was awash with angry and sarcastic comments – a contrast to the Blitz-spirit tone that dominated in the early weeks of the pandemic.
From where I was sitting in my living room in Folkestone, two things seemed clear. The first was that there was a number of very legitimate reasons for people’s fury at the prime minister’s words. The second was that the speech was not the sole cause of the outpouring of frustration and vitriol.
The truth is that the mood has been shifting over the last week. For all the nostalgia and sentiment surrounding VE Day and the Queen’s claims that Britain’s empty streets are ‘filled with love’, tensions have been creeping in.
In addition to a noticeable increase in traffic and footfall, which suggests that many are no longer observing the guidelines as strictly as they were because of ‘lockdown fatigue’, there seems to have been a rise in altercations between strangers. These have been caused both by those expressing anger at people flouting social-distancing rules and those attacking others for being too cautious. (My own experience includes a pedestrian accusing me of being ‘frightened you’re going to get too close’ when I stepped aside to allow her to pass 2m from me, and a general awareness that I have much less patience with those I perceive to be hogging space and making it difficult for others to keep apart.)
These episodes are, in many ways, similar to instances of road rage – explosions of emotions that have been building over time and are generally only loosely linked to the trigger incident. We have all been under considerable stress for more than seven weeks now and the strain is becoming hard to contain.
This is compounded by the fact that the situation is unlikely to change materially any time soon. As reports drift across the English Channel of many European nations beginning to open up and return to normal, we in the UK continue to record hundreds of deaths each day.
In the face of this, the carrot of phased school reopenings and parts of the hospitality industry being allowed to resume trading some time in the next two months (presented by the prime minister with a series of Clip Art-style images and a sliding scale of risk that, as a number of wits observed on Twitter last night, bears an uncanny resemblance to the Nando’s flavour chart) looks rather forlorn.
‘Save lives,’ the government continues to urge as the current situation becomes increasingly unlivable. ‘Stay alert,’ it instructs a population wearied after two months of navigating changes to and curtailments of almost every element of public life. No wonder people are fed up.