Covid#17 – Masks (30 July 2020)

The law that’s just obliged England’s shoppers to wear masks got several angry right-wingers even hotter under their collars. Desmond Swayne MP called it a ‘monstrous imposition’. James Delingpole wondered if it was the most damaging and self-destructive thing Boris Johnson has ever done. Peter Hitchens waxed nostalgic and apocalyptic at the same time: anyone who wore a ‘muzzle’ was assenting to ‘the final closing down of centuries of human liberty and the transformation of one of the freest countries on Earth into a regimented, conformist society, under perpetual surveillance.’

Opposition to legal compulsion isn’t quite as ludicrous as those objections make it sound. Australians, Scandinavians and the Dutch have been even less inclined than English people to wear masks during the pandemic, and no Nordic state makes them compulsory at all. The more radical forms of dislike emerged among fringy supporters of Donald Trump, but their idiocy isn’t conclusive proof of mandatory masking’s effectiveness. No randomised control trial has ever established (or tried to establish) that face coverings slow the spread of COVID-19 among apparently healthy people. Until June both the World Health Organisation and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control were correspondingly equivocal about whether wearing them in public places should be routine.

Since the only obvious downside of more face coverings is more litter, that doesn’t explain the fury though. Coughing into elbows isn’t a scientifically validated precaution either, in that no clinical trial has ever measured its benefits, but it’s unwise for everyone to cough into their hands during a pandemic all the same. And whatever Desmond Swayne might say, the only thing definitely monstrous about the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings in a Relevant Place) (England) Regulations 2020 is their name. No one’s required to cover up if that would cause them ‘severe distress’, several retail chains aren’t planning to enforce the law, and senior police officers have been insisting that they’re not keen to arrest unmasked shoppers. The libertarians might yet be vindicated, of course, but as things stand they look less like prophets than scaredy-cats.

To feel the fear, I went to a demonstration against the new law in Hyde Park a couple of weekends ago. Organised by ‘Keep Britain Free’, it drew a few hundred predominantly middle-aged, middle-class, white people, and had a vibe similar to that of an anti-lockdown protest I attended back in May. Concerns about 5G frequencies and vaccination plots were rife, linked now to false claims made in a documentary called ‘Plandemic’ that masks somehow ‘activate’ latent particles of COVID-19. While some people observed that face coverings were no guarantee against viral infection, others imagined that they kept away germs so effectively that immune systems could seize up. There were worries that re-inhaled carbon dioxide would kill, and allusions to the involvement of powerful paedophiles. Someone explained that the government’s delay in making masks obligatory proved they were a ‘distraction’, but became annoyed when I asked what they were distracting from. My bandana got lots of funny looks.

Happily, I bumped into a friendly face: a police officer called Steve Barnes I’d met at the same spot four months ago. Our paths had crossed on 29 March: a grim moment in the pandemic, just ten days before London’s death toll hit its peak (I wrote about our meeting soon afterwards: https://wp.me/p1ZazT-77). Though Steve’s an upbeat character, the mood then had been melancholy. He isn’t your average copper – as I mentioned in a post at the time, he’s a druid too – and it had emerged during our chat that he’s emotionally attached to Speakers’ Corner. Six days on from the lockdown’s start, he’d just circulated an email among Sunday regulars to tell them that its traditions of free assembly were on hold. Contemplating the expanse of asphalt, he was already anticipating their revival. ‘This is the jewel in the crown’, he’d said. ‘If this goes, everything goes’.

The atmosphere at our reunion could hardly have been more different. The area around Marble Arch was abuzz with feminists, preachers, and Black Lives Matters supporters, and Steve himself had just addressed the Keep Britain Free crowd. It wasn’t the afternoon’s most radical speech. Someone had been using a megaphone, and he’d had to explain that wasn’t how Speakers’ Corner worked: ‘If you want to get on your soapbox or ladder, you’ve got to shout!’ That let me steer our conversation towards politics though, and I eventually asked what he’d made of his audience. I was genuinely curious – it’s not every day you get to discuss conspiracy theories with a druid – but Steve was definitely on duty. Without quite evading my question, he answered a different one. ‘It’s great,’ he said. ‘A lot more groups are out than before. Speakers’ Corner feels healthier than it’s been for a long time.’

That’s what you want police officers in a democracy to say, and though nothing else about Sunday’s protest impressed me, I was almost as glad as Steve to see it happening. The government’s inconsistent approach to masking arguably has justifications (the WHO didn’t make its U-turn until June, after all), but its steady squandering of trust since March is now tainting every tired ministerial claim to be ‘guided by the science’. The extent of scepticism has to be acknowledged and understood – not least, because the success of a future vaccination programme might depend on it. COVID-19 will remain a threat until at least two-thirds of the population are immune, and there’s everything to play for. Just 6% of UK citizens currently tell pollsters they’re sure to refuse a vaccine (a proportion lower than almost anywhere else in Europe) but 25% remain on the fence. They need to be persuaded, not ignored.

The small protest was unnerving nonetheless. The rise of social media algorithms and echo chambers means that the size of real-world gatherings matters less than ever before, and one of the justifications for free speech I optimistically maintain – that bad arguments wilt under public scrutiny – has had a poor track record in recent years. Politics post-lockdown are even more mysterious. So many people claim to have been reprioritising and recentring during the atomised, silent days of spring that social attitudes to big issues like individual and collective rights have almost certainly shifted. Seismic fractures open far beneath the surface though. It’s barely possible to imagine how attitudes created by COVID-19 will one day redefine us all.

The new division that’s most visible – an imported obsession with the symbolism of masks – could hardly be more surreal. In the United States, it’s given rise to at least eight shootings (four of them fatal) and some of the Americans who say they’re battling totalitarianism are doing it by wearing swastika masks and KKK hoods. With luck, England will avoid similar extremes, but, almost like the conflict described in Gulliver’s Travels between Big-Endians and Little-Endians, a bitter war fought over which side of a boiled egg to break, the struggle’s significance is inseparable from its pointlessness. It’s now been confirmed that England has suffered more excess deaths during this pandemic than any other country in Europe. As Brexit negotiations hurtle towards an undebated dénouement and Kremlin interference in British politics goes uninvestigated, tensions with China are soaring and the US is teetering on the brink of real fascism. If I were conspiracy-minded, I’d be suspicious. Worrying about muzzles is something of a distraction.

Covid#16 – After London (19 July 2020)

Inspired by recent dips into the diary of Samuel Pepys, I spent much of last week in the City. In Aldgate, specifically. Sandwiched between the financial district’s glistening towers and the grubbiness of Whitechapel, it’s at the capital’s core. Beneath the streets lie innumerable plague pits and the ruins of an Elizabethan playhouse. A fifteen-minute walk could take you to an Anglo-Saxon wharf or a Roman temple dedicated to Mithras. An hour’s enough for a whistle-stop tour across two thousand years, with ancient synagogues, medieval bridge remnants and Jack the Ripper murders all included. Ghosts are everywhere.

The area’s even more haunted than usual at the moment. Whereas London’s other neighbourhoods are twitching and jerking back to life, up to 90% of the City’s million or so commuters aren’t back yet. It’s normal for the area to lapse into silences – fewer than nine thousand residents live there – but the stillness now is continuous, and almost sinister. Though malls have opened, they’re deserted. Receptionists are at their desks only to explain why no one else is. Excavation works have restarted (because, as fate would have it, office construction hit an all-time high just as the pandemic began), but groundbreaking is more speculative than ever. At least one phantom skyscraper has no prospective tenants at all.

The uncertainties are compounded by contradictory official messages about the healthiness of office environments. But though friction between ministers and scientific advisors has been worsening other avoidable mistakes, clearer guidance wouldn’t have filled the City’s streets. Companies are focused on practicalities – how to safely transport people up and down skyscrapers, for example – and their eyes are fixed firmly on bottom lines. Facing an economic crash that the Office for Budget Responsibility expects to be the worst in three centuries, almost a third of firms are already planning redundancies. And the storm’s not far off now. Furlough schemes will wind up on 31 October, and the OBR forecasts that unemployment could reach four million by the start of next year.

All that made sightseeing expeditions quite eerie. Even in happier times, the City’s intimidating facades can’t help but hint at dystopian terrors, and the gleaming, windswept exteriors feel doubly weird today. Moribund though things look, corporate minds are whirring. Behind glass doors and skyscraper windows, heads of strategy and human resources are contemplating whether to make emergency measures introduced in March permanent. And if enough employers decide that enough employees should work remotely, dizzying implications follow. The institutionalisation of flexible working could set off spiralling job losses, not least because of its impact on the City’s service sector, and were the shift to become a stampede, acres of office space would flood the rental market.

That raises complicated issues. For lots of people, working from home isn’t living the dream; it’s a rabbit-hutch nightmare. Like any self-respecting liberal, I’m also well aware that multinational corporations aren’t cool. I’m reactionary enough to fret at the prospect of a City gone tumbleweed though. Economic activity in London apparently generates almost a quarter of the UK’s GDP, and while that might be abstract, it isn’t meaningless. All it takes to appreciate the point is a lunch-break. At every supermarket and sandwich shop I saw open last week, more staff uniforms were visible than suits. If hardship does hit, the filthy rich won’t suffer alone . . .

Over-contemplating the cathedrals of capitalism doesn’t feel good for the soul, and in the interests of spiritual renewal and historical reflection, I detoured on Thursday into a real church. St Olave’s, a Gothic dwarf crouching in the shadows around Fenchurch Street, is where Samuel Pepys once worshipped. His grave is under the altar, and when I wandered over to take a look, a figure pottering around the chancel introduced himself as the rector. Though Arani Sen agreed that his parish is quiet, he takes inactivity in his stride. All his Sunday services are currently being conducted via Zoom, and when I promised to attend the next non-virtual event ‘if there’s room’, he assured me that his congregations are never large (‘perhaps six?’). As we contemplated Pepys and the pretty church garden – beneath which, three hundred victims of the 1665 plague lie buried – his wife came to join us. Alison had never read Pepys, and wondered what the diarist might have made of it all. ‘Describing the present is one thing’, she said. ‘It’s hard to imagine the future. Only a real visionary can do that.’

As it happens, Pepys probably wouldn’t have imagined very much. He liked to experience things, not anticipate them, and day-to-day events were all he really wrote about. I was struck by Alison’s remark though. It caused me to reread predictions I’ve been collecting since mid-March. Back then, it was common to hear fearful hopes that COVID-19 might usher in kinder, gentler societies and a more sustainable world. By April, downsides were coming to the fore: the risk of scapegoating, authoritarianism and mass death. Most recently, I’ve noticed an apocalyptic trend: commentaries that link Anglo-American pandemic failures to geopolitical shifts, and warnings of a civilisational clash that could overwhelm liberal democracy. Some of the prophecies will doubtless turn out to be true. At the moment though, they prove only one thing: collectively, we don’t have a clue.

A day after my visit to St Olave’s, the prime minister weighed in with visions of his own. In his latest effort to show that the Bojo magic’s still there, Johnson foresaw a revival in office activity after 1 August and expressed a ‘strong and sincere hope’ that there will be ‘a more significant return to normality . . . possibly in time for Christmas.’ That wasn’t a reasoned assessment. Since the government’s senior medical advisors were simultaneously insisting elsewhere that normality is a long way off, it wasn’t very persuasive either. Listening to the speech made me recall, all the same, that rhetorical optimism has value. Though Johnson’s handling of this pandemic has been disastrous in my opinion, one of leadership’s purposes is to accentuate the positive. No one’s going to be in want of reiterated medical advice as autumn and winter approach.

In my own moments of irrational optimism, I’ve been reminding myself that cities are good at enduring cataclysms. Even the plague of 1665 was a beginning as much as an end. A year after it began, the City was razed by fire, and a contemporary of Pepys noted that by 1681 London was already ‘infinitely more Beautiful, more Commodious and more Solid’ than ever before. Twentieth-century Manhattan also throws our present predicament into rose-tinted perspective. The Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center all took shape in the aftermath of Spanish Flu and the 1929 Wall Street Crash. The upheaval that instils the biggest sliver of hope in me is, oddly enough, Thatcherism. In warehouses and factories marooned by the de-industrialisation policies of the 1980s, rave culture was born, and recession in the early ‘90s nurtured a tremendous flowering of musical and artistic talent. Out of disaster, creativity can thrive.

Inspired by the lofty architecture that surrounded me during my City break, I’ve even had a few utopian thoughts. In another of his set-piece speeches, Boris Johnson announced on 30 June that his government is about to push through ‘the most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the second world war’: legislation to facilitate office-to-residence conversions, which will supposedly transform ‘vacant and redundant buildings’ into tens of thousands of cheap new homes. Just conceivably, that could be a perfect answer to City woes. With a few tweaks, abandoned skyscrapers could be turned into affordable housing, with ample space for socially-distanced gigs in the viewing galleries, and ateliers in the skygardens. It’s not on the cards, admittedly. Johnson’s deregulatory scheme has more dastardly aims. But all bets are off. When spaces open up, unexpected things start growing through the cracks. It’s hard to imagine the future.

Covid#15 – A Risky Business (11 July 2020)

North Kensington’s feeling capricious at the moment. A couple of weeks on from a stabbing, a shooting, a rave and a riot, no one’s expecting a calm summer. When England’s lockdown ended last Saturday, I wondered if there’d be a celebration.

Things started quietly. ‘More stalls, fuck-all business’, was the assessment of a market trader who I bought peas from as I strolled down Portobello Road. When I suggested that the prospect of pub reopenings might have frightened some people off, he misheard. ‘Yeah mate!’, he laughed. ‘They’re probably all getting pissed.’ A few were, but no one looked very happy about it. With visors and squirts of hand sanitiser, bouncers were explaining COVID-19 compliance protocols to all new arrivals. Customers keen to get to the bar nodded solemnly. Others, less interested in going to the pub than in being around one, diverted to the supermarket and bought cans instead.

Later that evening, things moved up a gear. Local restaurants were fully booked. At the more exclusive establishments, patrons dined at outdoor tables in the drizzle, just because they could. The junction of Blenheim Crescent and Portobello Road, an epicentre of entertainment in recent weeks, had turned into a small dancefloor. Several hundred people were milling around it, wondering when something would happen. The answer turned out to be 11.45. Dancers scattered like pigeons, the sound system vanished, and a fluorescent phalanx of riot police advanced on the crossroads. Chanting some kind of haka, they pushed east- and northwards. An officer shouted orders to ‘leave immediately or face arrest!’ Buildings flashed blue, police carriers zipped round street corners, and a distant helicopter chopped towards the scene. I called it a night.

Notting Hill’s seen better fiestas. It wasn’t social distancing violations that made the night dreary though. It was the social fragility and economic vulnerability it reflected. And that extended far beyond Portobello Road. Earlier in the day, I’d cycled through Soho, and though it was filling with party animals, signs of vitality plummeted everywhere beyond Old Compton Street and Soho Square. Theatreland was a silent, flickering time capsule, and the shops of Oxford Street were so deserted they looked almost inviting. A few cycle rickshaws were back in operation, but there weren’t enough passengers to go round. The same looked true of Thames clippers I saw plying the river the next day, while East London’s Sunday markets, starved of tourists, were spindly shadows of their former selves. Brick Lane’s Bengali restaurants, desperate at the best of times, had so few passers-by to entice that one tout took a chance on me. ‘Fully socially-distanced, sir’, he said. Sadly, I believed him.

All that’s been causing me angst, especially because the question of constraints on pre-pandemic behaviour arose during my own little contribution to last weekend’s festivities. The occasion was a garden dinner party on Friday night. The host had cautious intentions – indeed, he was the most COVID-wary person I knew back in March – but it was raining, and arriving guests instinctively stayed around the dining table. Though I kept my distance for a long time, eavesdropping from the patio and yelling contributions to the conversation, I finally gave in when the dancing started. It’s not that the downsides of this coronavirus have become abstract – strokes, scarred lungs and heart attacks still flit through my imagination more vividly than I’d like – but catching up with people I care for by shouting at them just felt wrong.

It’s not just me. A friend who used to wash his groceries and quarantine his post went to an unashamedly house party last weekend. Another friend who’s spent weeks talking about her fondness for isolation popped out on Saturday to raise a pint. And though plenty of people are perturbed by the mingling that’s kicked off, a set of IPSOS-MORI polls I’ve just read suggests they’re in the minority. Young adults, always relatively sceptical about public health restrictions, see their relaxation as long overdue. Non-white people have also been less likely to comply with lockdown rules, perhaps reflecting their disproportionate susceptibility to loneliness, anxiety and depression since March. The population as a whole has always claimed to be more concerned for the health of the country than personal well-being – and that worry is less intense than at any time since the lockdown began.

Evolving perspectives about the risk of COVID-19’s spread can’t easily be shrunk to generalisations, but they divide at least three ways. Some people assume that loosening the lockdown will hasten a second wave of unnecessary infections. Others think that danger minimal or inevitable, and the only controls they potentially support are local restrictions and laws to shield vulnerable groups. The most numerous group stand somewhere in between. Fearing the worst and taking sporadic precautions, they’re recalibrating their alarms and lowering their guard. In case it’s not obvious, that’s where I am.

All middle ways are open to criticism. Awaiting disaster is obviously passive. Anyone who eases up in the process might, like the metaphorical frog in a slowly boiling kettle, miss the biggest threat of all. It’s never complacent to rethink attitudes formed at the peak of an emergency though. They’re easily skewed by fear, and those maintained for the sake of consistency sometimes reflect a less principled response to shock – namely trauma. And though dismantling the lockdown obviously carries risks, a refusal to take chances now seems even riskier. Screened from public view by furlough schemes, at least a million jobs in the leisure and hospitality industry may already have evaporated . . .

As I contemplated the mysteries of risk-assessment for this post, a sideways slant on the subject popped up across Facebook in the form of extracts from Samuel Pepys’s diary about London’s plague epidemic of 1665. They’re fake, and the invented observation that’s been most popular over the last week suggests, topically enough, that Pepys had no sympathy for anyone who risked infection by going to the pub. ‘A dram in exchange for the pox is an ill-bargain indeed’, he supposedly wrote. The supposed lesson’s obvious. Anyone intelligent knows to weigh long-term danger against short-term pleasure.

As usual, the propaganda’s less interesting than facts. Pepys was deeply troubled by the plague. It killed around a fifth of London’s population, including many of his acquaintances. As it circled the City, he became obsessed with death tolls and regularly resolved to put all his earthly affairs in order. But contemplating mortality didn’t paralyse him. Quite the opposite. As his morbid interest in burial statistics grew, he criss-crossed London by carriage and ferry, downing pints of wine, feasting on oysters and partying nights away. On 5 October 1665, he visited his mistress in Deptford, and though ‘round about and next door on every side is the plague’, he ‘there did what I would with her’. Death finally caught up with him – but it wasn’t till 38 years later, and whatever might be said about Pepys’ personal choices, the takeaway from his 1665 diary entries isn’t caution at all costs. Only fools ignore danger, but risks are sometimes there to be taken. That’s life.

Covid#14 – Party Time (2 July 2020)

A couple of weekends ago, I fell foul of the law. Potentially. In semi-honour of my half-Finnish roots, I had a picnic at Wormwood Scrubs to celebrate midsummer. Aware of the legal risks, I may have been reckless with my invitations. It’s a criminal offence to participate in an outdoor gathering ‘of more than six persons’, and a few too many turned up: at least twenty persons. The arguable crime was aggravated when a couple of QPR supporters, excited by Finland’s blue and white flag, came over to chat.

In my defence, Wormwood Scrubs is a windswept wasteland – more blasted heath than midsummer night’s dream – where no virus particle can hang around for long. Besides, I really wanted to party. Zoom Gloom had been gathering, and I was keen to engage physically with multiple acquaintances. Things never got as wild as I’d have liked. Memories of solstices past flickered through my mind – a screening of The Wicker Man in 2017, a walk across hot coals in Helsinki before that – and I imagined flaming effigies and leaping bonfires after sunset. Toying with taboos felt wrong this year, though. As the wind grew chillier, we finished my cinnamon buns instead. Those of us left standing when my flag was furled – a safe six, at last – headed to a friend’s garden to shiver a little longer.

It was a transgression ahead of its time. Within a day, thermometers were soaring, and al fresco celebrations erupted nationwide. By the middle of the week, campers and sunseekers were heading in their thousands to beauty spots and beaches around England. Liverpool’s Premiership win then unleashed festivities across Merseyside. Streets all over London bubbled into get-togethers, and police vans sped about dispersing open-air parties from Kingston to Hackney Downs. On Thursday, Wormwood Scrubs itself became a dance-floor, as hundreds descended on my picnic spot to rave the night away.

Images of crowds, confrontations and litter mountains provoked disapproval from all directions. Lots of people worried that the authorities were losing control, and a couple of tweeting anarchists I came across saw the opposite: an emerging ‘biosecurity state’. An ultra-sceptical acquaintance thought it obvious that the government was behind it all, pursuing hopes of herd immunity it only ever pretended to abandon. The most influential voices of outrage sounded almost impartial by comparison: as infuriated by the sunbathers and ravers as they had been about Black Lives Matters protesters and, early in the lockdown, people in parks. The Daily Mail reported that beaches across Britain were submerged in debris and laughing gas canisters (‘hippy crack’), while the prime minister warned that beachgoers in Bournemouth were ‘taking too many liberties with the guidance’. Anticipating a lockdown deregulation that he’d just announced, Boris Johnson said it was ‘crucial that on July the Fourth we get this right and we do this in a balanced way and we recognise the risks’.

Though the apprehension sounded reasonable, it was anything but. Two weeks before Johnson’s 23 June announcement that ‘our long national hibernation is beginning to come to an end’, a trusted associate called Andrew Griffith – his former chief business advisor, now a Tory MP – had urged him to ‘sweep away’ almost every pandemic-related economic restriction on Saturday 4 July, and label the occasion ‘our own Independence Day’. Friendly newspapers were briefed accordingly, and the Daily Mail was among several that predicted our liberation in advance – on what they duly called Independence Day, or ‘Super Saturday’.

Audiences less amenable were given treatment less friendly. Police commissioners weren’t contacted at all, and Downing Street ignored a direct plea from the Police Federation that pubs reopen on a weekday instead. The government’s concern about overcrowded beaches in Bournemouth was correspondingly hollow. Boris Johnson’s genuine attitude had been on show in parliament three days before, when Brighton’s Labour MP flagged up the similar risks facing his seaside constituency; the prime minister contemptuously told him to ‘show some guts’.

The implication that we should be gearing up to celebrate on Saturday is rather mystifying. Though Johnson is strangely loyal to the United States, he’s also a cynical English politician – and to many people whose support he’d ordinarily court, ‘our own Independence Day’ is a disaster in the making. Tim Martin of Wetherspoons is predictably pleased, but Greene King pubs won’t even start reopening until Monday, while the chairmen of the Police Federation and the Metropolitan Police Federation angrily foresee ‘a perfect storm’ and ‘apocalypse.’ Even traditional Tory cheerleaders are hedging their bets. ‘Barmageddon!’ equivocated The Sun.

So why the concern to facilitate a monumental booze-up? Plots are easier to assert than prove, but I’ve imagined a masterplan that’s at least plausible. Dominic Cummings is notoriously fond of disruption, and he apparently fancies himself to be a deep strategic thinker. He might have calculated that drunken disorder is most likely to break out in urban areas where Tories are already unpopular – and that if it does, Johnson could pose to his core supporters with very little downside as a champion of law and order. Subsequent arguments about relaxation of the lockdown could also serve as a useful distraction. Cummings has just initiated a restructuring project he’s been contemplating for years, taking steps to abolish DFID and politicise the senior civil service, and the less that anyone focuses on those seismic institutional changes, the happier Downing Street will be.

That’s more hypothetical than your average conspiracy theory, especially because the pubs haven’t opened yet, but unhinged speculation seems appropriate to the volatile mood. In my own corner of North Kensington, midsummer was followed by quite intense madness. The street parties last week regularly ended with emergency response teams calling time on crowds of drinkers, and police helicopters circled overhead on at least two nights. Late on Wednesday, someone was shot on Portobello Road, and Saturday saw a stabbing. Now that temperatures have sunk ten degrees, the streets and skies are quiet all over again, but Independence Day could easily draw the crowds back out. And though the weather for Saturday looks iffy, it feels as though the summer party’s just getting started. It certainly won’t take much to persuade Londoners that it’s time for a drink. Maybe even a little hippy crack . . .