Yesterday marked the beginning of new measures in England (although not in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) aimed at starting to open up society in the wake of the coronavirus lockdown.
The new guidelines are set out in a 50-page document. Broadly, however, the main headlines have been the idea that those living in England can now take ‘unlimited exercise’ (including driving as far they like to do this), visit garden centres, meet one member of another household outside (so long as social distancing is maintained) and sit down in parks. There has also been a shift in emphasis to encourage those unable to work from home to return to work.
On the face of it, the changes seem relatively small. Their impact, however, has been significant. Controversy has broken out over apparent inconsistencies in the guidelines, which if taken to extremes, mean that it is possible to drive 500 miles for a walk and employ a cleaner in your home but not to see both your parents at once (if they don’t live with you). There have been angry debates and witty retorts, with some wags suggesting one way round the issue might be to employ your relatives as domestic staff.
There have also been more troubling repercussions. For some, the change in policy has provided an opportunity to push other agendas. The UK Freedom Movement, which (although claiming to be politically neutral) campaigns against hate-crime laws and in support of far-right activists such as English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson, has capitalised on the growing frustration with lockdown restrictions to propose a series of illegal mass gatherings this weekend, including here in Folkestone.
But perhaps the most serious issue is the fresh divisions the guidelines have introduced. This is true as much on a personal level as it is between the four nations of the union. Instead of all labouring under one relatively simple instruction – to stay at home – we are now on a series of different trajectories, with certain groups of people obliged to take much greater risks in the interests of easing the lockdown.
Although the guidelines state that workplaces should be set up to enable social distancing and people are advised to avoid using public transport, it is widely acknowledged that this is impractical in many situations. As reports from London yesterday showed, simply travelling to a place of employment is forcing many to endure conditions in which it is impossible not to come into close contact with others.
Of course, the notion that we were all in this together was always problematic. Lockdown has affected people very differently depending on their material circumstances. Factors such as whether you have a garden, have children, are a key worker, are at risk of domestic abuse, are able to work from home or have lost income will have had a dramatic effect on your experience of the last eight weeks.
Still, as of yesterday, those distinctions have sharpened. It is now the case that many more people are being encouraged (and in some cases, depending on the attitude of their employers, required) to risk their safety in order to return to work at a time when the death rate is still twice what it was when lockdown began and when there is no information on the level of Covid-19 immunity in the general population. Because a lot of those unable to work from home will be in manual jobs, this means that the burden falls most heavily on people in the least well paid and most precarious positions. Meanwhile, those of us lucky enough to be able to work remotely continue to be insulated from the worst risks.
Cynics might say that ’twas ever thus. Crises always hit the most vulnerable hardest. That is just the way of the world.
Perhaps so. But it is still rather shaming to watch.