The past few days have brought a greater sense of variety and divergence to life here on the UK’s south coast. With different lockdown rules now applying to different groups of people (for example, single adults are now at liberty to form a bubble with another household, while those deemed clinically vulnerable are still advised to isolate) and non-essential shops reopening for business, it seems that the apparently universal nature of the Covid-19 restrictions in England is crumbling. (Of course, this was always something of an illusion, with wealth, safety, physical health, and employment and family circumstances having a huge impact on different people’s lockdown experiences.)
Now, while some rush out to the high streets once more, others stay cloistered at home; and while many are back to full-time work, others remain furloughed or find themselves unemployed with little idea what the future will bring. All the while, question marks remain over whether the easing of the lockdown will herald a sharp resurgence of Covid-19 cases.
In such circumstances, it’s easy to be judgmental when others’ choices don’t mirror our own. Social media today has been full of sniffy comments about the pictures of long queues outside clothes shops. I myself felt my lip begin to curl at the news that a number of Primarks had opened their doors early in an effort to deal with the crowds.
But, of course, as with most things in life, there’s much more to these choices than snapshots can convey. While it may be very easy for me to sit at home in my durable jeans and scorn those jostling for bargains in ‘non-essential’ shops, that luxury is probably not available to those on low incomes who, for several months, may have had to clothe their families without the help of charity shops. As I discovered a couple of months back, ‘essential’ can mean dramatically different things to different people.
Similarly, while I may bristle at the crowds flocking to the beaches here most weekends – making social distancing virtually impossible – I can’t know what it’s like to weather lockdown in a home without a garden or easy access to outdoor space. Among those sunning themselves and thronging around the few open seafront stalls, there are probably many who have spent weeks under extreme pressure. Who am I to judge that their passing momentarily close to their fellow pedestrians in pursuit of a 99 Flake ice-cream is so irresponsible as to cancel out the benefits of this brief taste of freedom?
A week or so ago, I met a man while out walking on the Harbour Arm. It was clear from the eagerness with which he engaged me in conversation that he was lonely. He lived on his own, he revealed, and, the previous weekend, he had seen his six-year-old granddaughter for the first time in three months. The plan had been for him to come for a socially distanced visit in his daughter’s garden and adhere to the government guidelines to keep 2m apart, but when he arrived he couldn’t resist his daughter’s offer to give the little girl a hug. ‘I melted,’ he told me with tears in his eyes.
The truth is, by this stage, most of the UK has probably broken lockdown guidelines one way or another. Whether we’ve passed too close to others on a narrow pavement, allowed visitors to our gardens into our houses to shelter from sudden downpours or looked after friends’ children in emergencies (and, by the way, I’ve done all of these), there can’t be many of us left who have adhered entirely to the – sometimes contradictory – instructions that issue every few days from No 10 Downing Street.
As time goes on – unless and until a second wave of infections builds – it seems likely that this pluralism of interpretation of government guidance will increase, with more and more of us tailoring our behaviour according to our circumstances, needs and risk.
In this respect, we are perhaps making the same accommodation with the lockdown guidelines as we make with the law in general, with each person demonstrating varying degrees of compliance. For the truth is, few human beings live entirely within the law. Whether you break the speed limit on occasion, indulge in illegal substances now and then, carry a plank on the pavement or handle salmon in suspicious circumstances (yes, all these are technically illegal, along with a number of bizarre others, and, before you ask, no, I haven’t done all of them), few of us are entirely law-abiding. No matter how much we value the concept of the law, ignorance, impatience or sheer exasperation with it being ‘an ass’, as Dickens wrote in Oliver Twist, will almost certainly lead us to transgress at some point.
So where does that leave us as we emerge, at different rates and in different ways, from the extreme restrictions of the past few months? It’s hard to say. But I suspect many of us will have to get used to turning a blind eye, trying to see a little more kindly and agreeing to disagree.