Lockdown – Reflections at the end of week 42

Fortunately, I’m still allowed to take the dog out so the cogs have been able to whirr on this crisp morning.

There are not many people who are likely to look at 2020 as a whole with great fondness, and it’s fair to say that its last couple of weeks did nothing to change anyone’s view. The first week of 2021 has demanded hope rather than lifted expectations as we get to grips with it feeling as if we’ve been dragged back into our cells after a late summer and autumn out on licence.

The starting point, it seems clear, is the mutation of the virus. I was speaking to a friend in early November, when, from publicly available information, the moves into and then subsequently through the tiers seemed to be attributable to how people were behaving in relation to the virus rather than anything else. He had been a biologist in a previous career and he remarked that one of the few upsides in the pandemic up until then was that the virus (as we knew it then) was not actually all that efficient at transmitting itself. How prescient he has proved to be as the new variants have torn up the previous rule book on preventing spread and created an enormous spike in new infections. From that point, the awful mathematics of epidemiology have led the NHS to breaking point and to the re-imposition of stricter lockdown measures. It seems remarkable that, in the light of what we know now, in the week leading up to Christmas the Prime Minister told Parliament that the Christmas relaxation of the tier-based restrictions would take place. It also seems remarkable that the government was also prepared to take up hostilities with the London Borough of Greenwich over whether children should go to school for the generally meaningless last few days before the Christmas holiday as, it would seem, a matter of political principle. There will come a point in the years to come when it becomes clear through Parliamentary enquiry and the like as to when the government became aware of the first of the new variants and their raised transmissibility. Whilst we need to avoid the temptation to judge difficult situations with the benefit of hindsight, it may make uncomfortable reading.

We saw first the Christmas U-turn and this has been followed by a number of further U-turns in the last few days, including those over school opening and the nature and timing of the introduction of stronger restrictions. Whilst the politically minded will make capital from this, there is a more important point coming out of the dithering and indecision. People will have been hit hard in all sorts of ways by the return to lockdown, more so because it’s in the middle of winter. There will be worries about jobs, businesses, education and mental health to list but a few. Most people will also not have visited a hospital in the current circumstances or experienced the death of a relative who has been in hospital for a period of time, unvisited and cared for by dedicated but hugely stretched staff who are at the sharp end of the maelstrom. Even though there is extensive reporting from hospitals on television news, it is understandably hard for people who haven’t seen it for themselves to visualise in the abstract the effects of the crisis on hospitals. In turn, the meaning of the message that we need to lock down to save lives by allowing the system to care effectively for the seriously ill is hard to grasp without direct experience. That message is not made any easier to comprehend by its being delivered in piecemeal and contradictory terms and by ongoing inconsistency in the policies which support it.

But the vaccine is coming, so we’re perhaps in the darkness before the dawn, and whilst we can question aspects of our government’s leadership, we’re at least in a better position in that respect than the people of the United States have been for the last four years. I was reminded earlier this week of the veterans’ march which took place in 1932 in the midst of the great depression as, in many cases jobless and, in some cases, homeless army veterans took their mass protest to Washington DC with restraint and dignity. They were the victims of real hardship and did not storm the Capitol. By contrast, we have just seen unprecedented violence against the highest symbol of democracy in the US perpetrated in the cause of the hypocritical narcissism of one man who has often seemed prepared to destroy faith in the democracy which he falsely claims has been corrupted against him. His U-turn this morning, whilst welcome in its message, has a hollow ring to it.  We can only hope that Mr Trump’s presidency signals the high water mark of populism in the US during our lifetime than the infant mewling and screaming of a putative dynasty.

There is also Brexit, but that can wait until next week.

Against all that, there are reasons to think in terms of a Happy New Year, but we may not feel it just yet. I wish it to you all the same as I look forward in hope to a better summer and, everything crossed, a test match at Lord’s in August. For any of you who may not regard me as an optimist, I can assure you that I’ve bought my tickets already.

Ian Waine
Senior Partner