Today, in England, it’s the summer bank holiday, the last public holiday before Christmas. Although British Summer Time continues until the clocks go back an hour in October, for many people, this marks the end of the summer break and the point at which we start to turn our attention to the challenges of the autumn.
This year, the holiday feels like a particularly stark watershed. With many pupils set to return to school this week for the first time since March and the government urging office workers to resume commuting in an effort to bring life (and money) back to city centres, it seems as though we are on the brink of moving into a very different phase – one that, depending on who you speak to, could either be the start of a period of recovery and new opportunities, or the cause of a deadly second spike in Covid cases.
It comes on the back of a topsy-turvy summer, in which a lot people have been obliged to modify their habits. For many, the notion of holidaying itself has shifted. The latest word to have been infected by coronavirus in this country seems to be ‘staycation’, which has changed from its original meaning of ‘holidaying at home’ to ‘holidaying within the borders of your own nation’. British beauty spots and seaside resorts have boomed or been overrun (depending on which news outlet you consult).
Those who have ventured abroad have often found their holidays less restful than they hoped. With the government list of countries from which travellers must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival changing frequently, it has become commonplace to hear of holidaymakers engaging in mad dashes to get back to the UK before new deadlines kick in. (My favourite story was of a group of musicians who did a concert in France at 9pm and then chartered a fishing boat to get back to Britain before restrictions kicked in at 4am).
For those of us who haven’t ventured far from home, the rhythm of the weeks have changed. With Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme funding 50 per cent off at restaurants from Monday to Wednesday, eateries have been packed on what have traditionally been the quietest days of the week. Some businesses have reported more than doubling their takings for August and are even considering continuing the promotion at their own expense after the government funding ends today.
Not being a great fan of crowds, I haven’t taken advantage of the offer. However, I have ventured to two pubs, one café and two restaurants on other less busy days since the beginning of July.
These trips have been surprisingly pleasant. With tables spaced to allow social distancing, one-way systems in operation, and shields and screens providing protection, they have felt far less frenetic than going out for a meal sometimes does. There was no struggle to hear what my companions were saying, the waiters seemed less harried than usual and I was far less conscious of encroaching on the enjoyment of other diners than I often feel when eating out with a small child.
All the same, there was a slightly surreal, through-the-looking-glass quality to it all. At one restaurant, when I got chatting to the waiter, she told me that in many ways she preferred working in the current conditions – she had more time off and fewer customers to serve because of the social-distancing restrictions. It was easier. But it was also hard to see how the business model could be sustainable in the long term. The numbers simply didn’t add up.
This sense of a gap between what is projected and what is physically possible has been something of a theme this year. Cynics would say it is always so as far as politics is concerned. Maybe so. But it’s rare that so many people’s lives and livelihoods seem at risk of collapsing into the chasm between the two.
For now, however, there is no knowing how the coming changes will play out. And so, as the last British holidaymakers pack up their buckets and spades and prepare to head back to reality, we wait to find out precisely what that reality will be.