Covid#6 – Park Life (26 April 2020)

On the Sunday after this lockdown began, I headed for Hyde Park. Boris Johnson had said that police would be enforcing the new rules ‘through fines and dispersing gatherings’, and that’s the kind of warning the ranters and hecklers of Speakers’ Corner might ordinarily have had opinions about. Not on 28 March. The only conversation in sight involved three despondent Muslim men talking to a policeman on a bike. As I watched, the trio nodded and trudged towards the gates.

Cycling up to the officer, I asked if they’d been cooperative. Victoria Park in east London had just been closed for fear it was attracting too many visitors, and I was ingratiating myself in the hope of learning if Hyde Park was similarly threatened. The three men had been disappointed but civil, he said, and though he’d been fielding extra complaints about panting joggers and unleashed dogs, most people were ‘too stunned to argue about anything.’ All the same, he personally suspected that a closure of all the Royal Parks was imminent. Even if necessary, he added, that would be a shame.

I wondered what exactly had made park-users seem ‘stunned’. With a baffled smile, he shook his head. It wasn’t just other people; he too was ‘shell-shocked’. But the very intensity of the crisis might, he thought, have positive consequences. In vague agreement, I mumbled something about caring and sharing more. He ignored me. ‘I’m a druid, see. And our god – whatever, the thing we venerate – is nature. Maybe we, the environment, are going to end up in a better place’. After a week of trying hard to expect the unexpected, that was one surprise too many. All I could really think of to ask before we parted ways was whether the demands of druidry ever clashed with being a police officer. ‘I don’t really call myself that’, he said. ‘I prefer peace officer.’

Having spent a month mentally kicking myself, there’s a far longer conversation we’ve now had in my head. But it doesn’t dwell on the planet’s future. Though COVID-19 is provoking big questions about where humanity goes from here, I’m less focused on the answers than I probably should be. I’m more interested in what a pagan police officer would make of changing attitudes towards the urban environment in London. As millions have hunkered down in flats without gardens, sometimes in solitary confinement, the great outdoors is looking more attractive than ever. Public land feels precious. Unobservant people are noticing flowers. I’ve downloaded a birdsong-recognition app.

Access to green space almost seemed to get a government guarantee last week, when Communities Minister Robert Jenrick said that he’s ‘made it clear to councils that all parks must remain open’. But that welcome announcement was counterbalanced four days later by a quieter, more ominous proclamation. On 22 April, Health Secretary Matt Hancock put his signature to revised lockdown regulations that now make it a criminal offence not just to ‘leave’ your residence without good reason, but to ‘be outside it’. The four-word amendment took effect without parliamentary debate and no journalist seems to have noticed, but its legal effect is real. As of last Wednesday, you can be arrested, fined or charged simply for staying out too long.

The government’s decision to make the tiny change gives rise to a question as important as it’s obvious: why? If the aim is the improper one of making arrests easier, heavy-handed action would ordinarily lead to quick scrutiny and challenge in a courtroom, but judicial processes are sticky at the moment, and police interpretations of the new power are likely to stay undisputed for a while. That’s a shame. Though social distancing is as important as ever, COVID-19 isn’t the only malady that worsens and shortens lives. Immobility, loneliness and enforced cohabitation take their toll too, and the police should be told explicitly that the psychological benefits of being outdoors are legally protected. The lockdown regulations permit ‘exercise’, and there’s no sensible justification for limiting that to physical fitness, rather than well-being in general.

That’s what I wish I’d discussed with the druid-cop of Speakers’ Corner. And when we were done exploring the spiritual dimensions of lockdown laws, I’d have liked to chat some more. He was the friendliest policemen I’ve met during the last month, and it would have been good to hear his thoughts about over-eager enforcement. Across London, there are benches wrapped in plastic tape, like hundreds of small crime scenes. From North Kensington to London Fields and Walthamstow, police vans have been prowling across patches of grass, telling individuals not to sit down or sunbathe. A couple of Sundays ago, I heard a policeman on Primrose Hill tell everyone that they were required by law to ‘keep moving’. Though he earned my sympathy (‘people – I haven’t seen my own family for five weeks’, he pleaded), that invented rule was particularly dubious. In the words of a houseboat resident with whom I later spoke: ‘So it’s fine if you’re running in lycra, but old people watching the sky from a bench get moved on? That’s wrong.’

Last week’s extension of police powers is likely, as usual, to have a disproportionate impact on the poor and the vulnerable. While well-heeled Richmond and Hampstead have been full of spaciously distanced sunbathers and picnickers on days that I’ve visited, areas of south and east London where public space is at a premium have faced strict controls from the lockdown’s start. Lambeth’s Brockwell Park shut for a day in early April, while Victoria Park – which lies between three of the most densely populated boroughs in England – was closed for two full weeks.

Victoria Park’s fate was particularly ironic. The very reason it opened in 1845 was to combat disease. Cholera had raged out of the Limehouse docks across east London in 1832, and though deaths were few by COVID-19 standards – about 800 – the epidemic convinced senior politicians and Queen Victoria that giving East Enders an outdoor recreation ground wasn’t just charitable, but also self-interested. The man who did most to persuade them – a ground-breaking epidemiologist called William Farr – explained in 1839 that letting poor slum dwellers spend time in fresh air would probably ‘add several years to the lives of the entire population’.

With that history in mind, I cycled to Victoria Park on 12 April: the day after its two-week closure came to an end. An online notice warned returning visitors against ‘static exercises such as yoga, pilates and general fitness training’, while dos and don’ts on the gates instructed everyone to exercise just once a day and, again, to ‘keep moving’. Sentries in masks and high-viz shouted at cyclists through megaphones to get off their bikes. Happily, the people scattered across the sunny lawns looked unbothered as they strained at resistance bands and bent themselves into shape. Spotting a cross-legged figure, serenely framed by cherry blossoms, I asked permission for a photo and we fell into conversation. When I mentioned William Farr’s concern for the health of east Londoners, he meditatively stretched a hamstring. ‘Should’ve fucking remembered that, shouldn’t they?’, he said.

I agreed. Farr’s pioneering work on tracking disease wasn’t complemented by scientific brilliance; like many contemporaries, he had no idea that cholera was water-borne and thought it was spread by drifting clouds of dank air. But that doesn’t make his belief in parks (or the ‘the lungs of London’, as Victorians called them) any less valuable. Enjoying outdoor space won’t keep COVID-19 at bay, but without it, no one’s going to stay fit and well for long.

Covid#5 – Locked Down (19 April 2020)

So. Another three weeks of working out what to do next. Extension of the lockdown was no great surprise, but it came with less predictable woes. On the Tuesday after Easter, as the UK theoretically returned to work, the Office of Budget Responsibility warned of 10% unemployment and a 35% decline in GDP by midsummer. The IMF pitched in with predictions of ‘the worst global recession since the Great Depression’. Reports on Channel 4 News and the BBC simultaneously revealed that COVID-19 has been raging through UK care homes. Only hospital deaths figure in the government’s daily fatality statistics, and a report in Friday’s Financial Times said that uncounted victims might number six thousand in England and Wales. That would put the UK in pole position to reach the largest toll in Europe.

The care home scandal is the clearest evidence yet that the government came to this pandemic unprepared. But another charge against ministers – that they should set out details of an exit strategy – is less convincing. So many calamities lie ahead that strategising a route through the pile-up wouldn’t just be premature; it would be incredible. Transparent planning is important, but all that’s absolutely certain is that, whatever steps are taken to ease the lockdown next time round, the social world that dissolved in March isn’t about to return. Everything that draws strangers together, from acts of worship to dating apps, has already changed, and though dreams of a vaccine might keep us sane, the intensity of life under lockdown is scoring deep psychological tracks.

That’s making central London feel like a suspended city. Nostalgia got me even before it closed down, but as the desolate streets and shuttered shops have grown more familiar, the 24/7 metropolis of yore is becoming increasingly hard to re-imagine. Zone 1’s space-age plazas, pseudo-traditional food courts and lunchtime amphitheatres, eerie enough to begin with, are downright spectral without the commuters, tourists and slackers they were built to accommodate. Uncongested roads are flowing, but the lanes filled with emergency vehicles, supermarket juggernauts and passenger-forsaken buses aren’t traffic as we knew it. The most visible measure of London’s economic health, its advertising space, meanwhile looks like a particularly sickly COVID-19 victim: for want of lucrative clients, screens across the city are urging praise for the NHS and calling on consumers to save lives.

Every circuit through the urban desert takes me sooner than I’d like to the same dull oasis – home – but though I badly miss the detours and pit-stops of pre-pandemic London, things could be worse. During an evening of lockdown-fuelled obsessiveness last week, I excavated a book I’d last shelved about two decades ago – Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish – and re-contemplated the measures taken in seventeenth-century France whenever plague broke out. Mayors would sub-divide their towns into residential quarters, and wardens were made responsible for specific streets. They locked all residents into their houses and, until the plague passed, everyone had to appear daily at a window to respond to a roll-call, on pain of death.

That didn’t just make me grateful for small mercies. It reminded me of conversations I’d had with several friends before our own house-arrest scheme began. They had complained that the government wasn’t clamping down hard and fast enough. Over recent weeks, lots of other people have been repeating similar charges: among them, plenty who’d say they were liberal. I can’t pretend to have agreed – though hindsight is showing the government got lots wrong, a Tory-declared state of emergency always felt instinctively to me like something worth resisting – but even if the clamp-down enthusiasts are right, their longing for a more decisive, repressive Prime Minister Johnson shows that political perspectives can shift fast during a crisis. And though Foucault had many convoluted and controversial theories, that’s why his account of French plague regulations is straightforwardly relevant today. Information gathered about individuals can be the source of immense power, and politicians who control it need to be kept in check.

That matters because of the current clamour over mass testing. The government’s consistent inability to organise the tests it’s been promising is glaringly apparent, and identifying people infected with COVID-19 would potentially benefit everyone, especially if recent contacts are traced and warned to self-isolate. Such a system won’t just spring into existence though. On Radio 4 last week, Imperial University’s Neil Ferguson said it presented an organisational challenge greater than Brexit and demanded ‘a small army’ of infection trackers and tracers. The government already seems to anticipate that ordinary members of the public will have an important role to play. Here, as in several other countries, apps are being developed that will use bluetooth to monitor physical interactions, so that people can be notified if they’ve recently been near someone who’s recently reported coronavirus symptoms. The questions thrown up are a lot easier to ask than answer though, and they go beyond concerns about mischievous mis-reporting and anonymity protections. What will happen to citizens who can’t be bothered to download a track-and-trace app or self-isolate? Will the government force them to? Will we, the people?

Another dimension is opened up by the controversy there has been about antibody tests: the ones that reveal not that someone’s infected, but that they’ve had the disease already. Ministers seem to have given up on Boris Johnson’s grand claim of mid March – that they’ll be a ‘game-changer’ – but only because trials at Oxford University found that 3.5 million tests purchased from China were useless. On 2 April, four days before the Oxford findings were reported, Matt Hancock was still vaguely foreseeing a time when recovered victims of the virus would get certificates or wristbands to prove their immunity. That was a double fantasy, because there’s no reliable evidence that exposure to COVID-19 produces lasting immunity, but a system that privileged people for beating off the disease would also be objectionable in principle. It would disadvantage everyone else, especially the old and vulnerable. It would encourage some people to catch the coronavirus rather than avoid it, and the value of certificates or wristbands could quickly generate a corrosive black market. The only way of safeguarding the system’s integrity would be yet further extensions of government power.

All the dangers lie ahead, and lockdown London certainly isn’t an Orwellian dystopia. Even if advertisers’ exhortations to love the NHS are starting to feel a touch totalitarian (and I admire health workers as much as the next potential ICU patient), police on patrol seem friendly enough. Though there have been reports of heavy-handed enforcement elsewhere, the greatest insensitivity I’ve personally encountered came from an officer at Kings Cross station, who laughingly told me that smack addicts now have to pay heroin prices for methadone. Drug dealers are being spooked by the city’s emptiness too.

States amass power invisibly and slowly though. And fear is driving so many decisions at the moment that authoritarian approaches to the current crisis are bound to gain support. Intrusive and repressive measures might even be necessary (I don’t yet know where I’d hypothetically stand) but it’ll be crucial to view the downsides through perspectives that aren’t just medical. If there’s one thing this government’s ineptitude has proved for sure, it’s that sound science can underpin bad policies. And the choices being made now are going to shape whatever’s left of society, long after COVID-19 subsides.

Covid#4 – Bluebells (11 April 2020)

Another week, another mood. It started calmly enough, at least by the frenzied standards of this pandemic. During my visit to Kew Gardens last month, one of many pauses for thought had come as I’d wandered through a wood where, in ordinary years, bluebells erupt in April and May. Imagining the leafless trees in bloom, I’d felt then that the sight would be sadder this year. It is – not least because the sight can’t be seen, now that Kew has closed its gates – so when I stumbled across a little blue riot near Hyde Park Corner on Sunday, I became quite sentimental. So much so that, in memory of springtimes less weird, I decided to keep an eye open for more. Flower-appreciation’s never been my greatest strength, but bluebell photography would, I figured, at least give me something pretty to worry about.

Events, as usual, intervened. By last weekend, death rates and epidemiological graphs were becoming familiar enough to make the immensity of COVID-19 slightly comprehensible. Though it hardly felt safe to go back in the water, it looked at least as though the shark was looming into view. But on Sunday evening, when news of Boris Johnson’s hospitalisation stuttered out of Downing Street, perspectives skewed and the outlook darkened all over again. Within hours, state-owned Russian media was citing ‘a source close to the leadership of the national health service’ to report that the UK prime minister was about to go on life support. The claim was as wrong as the supposed source sounded, but government assurances that Johnson was simply undergoing ‘tests’ were also misleading. His condition worsened, and he entered one of the intensive care units at St Thomas’s Hospital on Monday evening. By Tuesday afternoon, BBC journalists were on standby to cover his death.

Almost everyone has firm opinions about Boris Johnson by now, and those in London are a lot less favourable than they used to be, but the shock of his sudden deterioration sucked yet more energy from the already subdued capital. If the streets I cycled on Monday and Tuesday were representative, a quiet atmosphere turned into a hushed one. And, during a week when it emerged that COVID-19 has so far killed ten doctors and fourteen Transport for London workers – twenty-four tragedies in a daily toll that’s now hovering close to a thousand – my personal sense of foreboding also grew. Something that must have been true from the start struck me for the first time: it isn’t just food stores, chemists and post offices that are allowed to stay open during the lockdown, but funeral parlours too. They’re looking as inert as ever behind their discreet screens and fixed floral arrangements, but it’s been disconcerting to realise what’s become obvious: the business of death is booming. And on Wednesday, when I travelled through south-west London in glorious sunshine to wish my mum a happy birthday, yet more gloom punctuated the day. As I rolled through the meadows and lanes of Richmond and Kingston – leafy suburbs, with fewer confirmed cases of COVID-19 than any other London borough – I counted seven ambulances, parked outside houses or speeding to unknown destinations.

I’m not as despondent as those morbid reflections might suggest – cycling in the sun definitely has its benefits too – but the prime minister’s hospitalisation directly affected me, and not just because I’m a man of almost exactly the same age. As many people reading this already know, I was quite close to Boris for years, through a long friendship with his recently divorced ex-wife, and until Brexit wreaked its havoc, I liked him. That wouldn’t be worth saying on Facebook, except that it helps contextualise what I’ve just written – and it’s also made me acutely aware of certain reactions within my social media bubble. Insofar as my news feed keeps me properly informed, all my close friends (hi!) sensibly kept any opinions they may have had about the prime minister’s illness to themselves, and most of the people who expressed a view noted – sometimes to their own surprise – how strongly they were rooting for Johnson to pull through. But a handful of acquaintances preferred publicly to signal that their sympathies lay elsewhere. A couple were indifferent to his fate; at least two hoped he would die.

Such sentiments are awkward even to describe, but the attitudes are also worth recording and considering. It’s the urge to go public with contempt for a hospital patient that’s particularly unpleasant, not unarticulated uncaringness; there are several thought experiments involving Donald Trump that would probably end very badly in my own head. And though sympathy has typified the public’s response to Boris Johnson’s illness, that minimal mercy doesn’t equate to unity. This country has deep political wounds that four weeks of combating the coronavirus certainly haven’t healed – and for all the government’s talk of ‘shielding the vulnerable’ and doing ‘whatever it takes’, the present crisis will invariably end up exacerbating the divisions. A prediction that sweeping requires more reasoning than fits comfortably into Facebook, but the takeaway’s short: the stunned fear that’s been generating consensus and compliance is likely soon to give way to disagreements and disorder. If I’m wrong, no problem (I’ll just edit this post to prove I was right), but hopes for the prime minister’s full recovery are only decent and proper; they’re no guarantee of stability, and won’t change whatever lies ahead.

In fact, the very insistence of ministers that they can hold it together has already started to feel like a sign of things falling apart. Michael Gove’s attempt on Tuesday morning radio to reassure listeners that all was under control, for example, was followed three hours later by a statement that he was going into self-isolation; nothing has been heard from him since. The politician standing in for the absent prime minister, Dominic Raab, meanwhile instils no confidence at all. In respect of the government’s most urgent duty – to procure protective personal equipment for critical workers, and to roll out reliable COVID-19 tests – he’s done nothing but repeat unfulfilled government promises that now date back almost a month. With eyes that are both terrified and terrifying, Raab’s resemblance to a rabbit in headlights has been too apparent to be funny; at the first press briefing he led after the prime minister’s admission into intensive care, he twitchily declined four times to say he was in charge. Asked how policy differences would be determined in Boris Johnson’s absence – if Cabinet ministers disagree about steps to loosen the lockdown, for example – he insisted nonsensically that disputes would be resolved by everyone assuming collective responsibility for the argument. As I listened to Raab’s performance through headphones on my bike, he managed somehow even to sound like roadkill.

Anyway, that’s enough discord. I’ll go easier on the politics next time. It’s important still to imagine that we’re all in this pandemic together. And as I started this post by saying, I’ve been taking photographs of a much prettier outbreak: the bluebells that are spreading across London at the moment. I’ve even turned a few of them into a self-indulgent video ( It’s been a nice distraction. At the moment, reasons to look away from the enormity of events feel more precious than efforts to comprehend them.

Covid#3 – Turbulent Gas Clouds (4 April 2020)

I’ve been wondering how best to maintain my mental well-being during this pandemic, and in the interest of intellectual stimulation, I found time in my lockdown schedule last week to investigate where Public Health England’s two-metre social distancing rule came from. I’ll skip summary of my findings for now, but having spent several hours contemplating controversial topics like the fluid dynamics of sneezing and the role of aerosolisation in the Hunan bus cluster, one conclusion has become frighteningly obvious – I really need to get out more. And I’ve been doing my best.

For the little it’s worth, the view from the bike seat is that London’s popular mood might be stabilising a tad. A couple of weeks ago, while Downing Street was still making its tone-deaf pronouncements about herd immunity, swathes of the city were as desolate as a film set during post-production. Many of the people I met over subsequent days sounded like shell-shocked refugees, astonished by their own endurance and hunkering down for the long haul. Now, almost two months since British media first started predicting a coronavirus ‘new normal’, the cliché is becoming half-true: not because reality feels steadier, but because the drift towards disaster is making precautions more routine.

The viral enemy might be invisible (to invoke a second cliché, popular among politicians), but at least one counter-measure is tangible and increasingly in evidence. Medical masks used to be exceptional in London, favoured only by east Asian tourists and over-equipped cyclists, and anyone who walked into a grocery store wearing a bandana over their face would have raised eyebrows: a couple of choice words, and hands would have gone up as well. Nowadays, by my reckoning, 5-10% of west London shoppers, and up to a quarter of the people milling around Notting Hill Gate and Ladbroke Grove tube stations are sheltering behind scarves, gauze and bulbous builders’ masks.

Such measures almost certainly wouldn’t keep COVID-19 at bay, but as death tolls rise, the desire to feel shielded is bound to intensify. And though masks can’t stop contagion, they might slow transmission. If I learned anything from one of the papers I read last week – ‘Turbulent Gas Clouds and Respiratory Pathogen Emissions’, in case you’re interested – it’s that protecting the healthy from the spluttering sick never hurt anyone. In fact, that’s the best argument for masks, and it’s why several Asian countries and four European ones (so far) now make it compulsory to wear them in public. The US Center for Disease Control yesterday advised Americans to do the same, which points to the second-best argument for masks: President Trump doesn’t think they’re necessary. After delivering the CDC’s new guidance, he made clear he personally wouldn’t be following it. Given the lethal and sometimes malicious incompetence of his administration, perhaps there’s a silver lining to that cloud at least . . .

New rules of social engagement are also taking shape. Quite what they require isn’t yet clear, admittedly – I’ve no idea how long you can loiter with a couple you know after bumping in to them, for example, and everyone seems to have different ideas about inviting friends to gardens, balconies and houseboats – while respect for other pedestrians and cyclists is more like a game of draughts than a matter of instinct at the moment. Though re-learning how to negotiate queues and public pinch points isn’t difficult, the change feels significant. Human space invaders are more infuriating than ever, but I already miss being closer to strangers. It’s complicated.

I thought a lot about social distancing last Monday. On an afternoon far colder and windier than today’s, I’d cycled along a hushed Regent’s Canal towpath up to the summit of Primrose Hill – where, in healthier times, the hungover, the downbeat, the loved-up and the heavily stoned ordinarily congregate en masse, just to keep an eye on the horizon – and hardly anyone had been there. The usually kite-filled sky was empty, and except for a girl tugging ineffectually at a string, the only aerial enthusiast was a dejected parrot-keeper, whose birds wouldn’t fly. Descending again to street level, I accelerated homewards, only to screech to a halt when I saw a friend walking along the pavement. Unsure of the etiquette now governing chance encounters, we smiled and pretended to lunge riskily towards each other – but then, as I wobbled towards him, he genuinely backed away. ‘I’m doing more than two metres’, he said.

The friend happens to be a hypochondriac, and in a parallel universe where lethal pandemics are just an awful nightmare, I’d have laughed. But hypochondria, like fastidious hand-washing and compulsive hoarding, is de rigueur these days; everyone’s having phantom sore throats at the moment, and several friends and acquaintances have told me, Baron Munchausen-style, that dry coughs they remember from a couple of months ago were actually COVID-19 come early. Even I’ve started wondering how contagious this particular coronavirus might be, thanks to a couple of scientific reports I spent too long reading last week, and my friend’s prudence isn’t necessarily wrong. His fear is certainly rational: he regularly visits his needy 83-year-old mother (taking suitably obsessive precautions), and gambling with infection has no upside for him at all.

After weaving and zig-zagging our way down to Regent’s Park, shouting gossip and exchanging pessimistic pleasantries, we waved goodbye – with too much relief in my friend’s case, I thought – and I decided to pop over to the zoo. It was closed, of course, but its inmates can often be heard from the street and some are visible as well as audible. All I got to see were two giraffes and a solitary meerkat, but they looked so calm that I stood enthralled for minutes. At least in some quarters, London’s lockdown doesn’t matter. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss once wrote that ‘animals are good to think with’ – and though that’s part of a complex argument that’s sparked many more, it simply made sense on Monday. Overlooked by blocks of luxury flats, I cycled along the park’s deserted perimeter road, leaving whooping, growling cages behind as I headed back to my own enclosure.