Covid#13 – Saving The Planet (24 June 2020)

I saw a movie last week. A friend recommended it. His cinematic tastes are more sophisticated than mine, but Mars Attacks delivered exactly what the title promised, and more. Mars didn’t just attack; its inhabitants annihilated almost everyone in the cast. Pierce Brosnan was decapitated and Sarah Jessica Parker’s head was transplanted onto a chihuahua. When President Dale (Jack Nicholson) pleaded for peace, a Martian hand of friendship impaled him through the rectum. All that stood between earth and oblivion was, inexplicably, the music of Slim Whitman. The aliens disliked it so much that (spoiler alert!) their brains exploded. As a result, humanity prevailed.

It would be an exaggeration to call the film good. Dumbing down is its own reward though, and I had my reasons for watching it. An excuse, at least. I’d been thinking about the apocalyptic atmosphere that descended as COVID-19 spread out of Wuhan and Milan, and a story Mikhail Gorbachev had once told about Ronald Reagan. In November 1985, during a nuclear arms control summit in Geneva, the American president apparently ended an afternoon session early and invited his Soviet counterpart on a lakeside stroll. Accompanied only by interpreters, Reagan then raised a subject that was playing on his mind. If extra-terrestrials were to invade, he wondered, would the USSR help defend earth? ‘Without a doubt’, said Gorbachev.

The very idea of a US president who dreams of global cooperation is almost poignant in 2020, and Reagan’s sunny personality couldn’t be more different from the dark presence glowering out of the White House today. But Reagan trod a fine line between ludicrous and bellicose, playing up to his cowboy image in an era that teetered on armageddon. President Dale’s unhappy fate in Mars Attacks was a reminder that not every threat can be negotiated away, but the casting of Jack Nicholson as a reasonable man also hints at an unexpectedly serious point. The gravity of a global crisis is no guarantee against ridiculous or inadequate political leadership.

High-flown rhetoric about the scale of the COVID-19 threat was widespread outside the United States when this pandemic began. In March, the World Health Organisation and Chinese government both urged the international community to take concerted action for humanity’s sake. By early April, no less a figure than Matt Hancock was rallying the human race. It was ‘in the midst of a war’, he said, and history proved ‘that when the world unites against a common foe, we will prevail.’ A couple of days later, the Queen pitched in. She recalled a more divisive conflict – the Second World War – but ‘this time’, she reassured viewers, ‘we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavour.’

That almost sounded convincing. As I counted emergency vehicles and hearses on my rides around lockdown London, ominous developments far away felt strangely familiar. A friend who’s been working on a book about life in an isolated Peruvian village told me that the virus was somehow spreading through the Amazonian rainforest. An aid worker I know described its effects in the world’s largest refugee camp: the residents of Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar had been doubly confined, and they were worrying not just about COVID-19, but also rumours that anyone showing symptoms would be murdered in quarantine. Hardships were often worse elsewhere, but the sense of menace was ubiquitous. It seemed to be touching everyone, in ways more shareable than ever before.

That’s changed, in that people are now angry and sceptical as well as distressed, and the prospects for inter-governmental collaboration look even worse. As if hankering for a War on Terror to call his own, Donald Trump’s only crisis strategy has been to conjure more adversaries into existence. Two days after Benjamin Netanyahu became the first world leader to call COVID-19 an ‘invisible enemy’, the president borrowed the phrase to declare war on it. In the three months since, his tweets, interviews, press briefings and speeches have attacked the ‘invisible enemy’ (along with the ‘Wuhan virus’, the ‘Chinese plague’ and ‘kung flu’) more than a hundred times. Under cover of the verbal barrage, he’s withdrawn United States from the World Health Organisation and escalated political assaults on not just China, but Canada and Europe too. The only fears he hasn’t whipped up are those he senses might be his fault. Asked on 20 March what he’d say to Americans ‘who are scared’, Trump told NBC’s Peter Alexander, ‘I say that you’re a terrible reporter, that’s what I say. I think that’s a very nasty question.’

Contemplating the violent vocabulary of Donald Trump for long never did anyone any good. But the language has echoes closer to home that deserve notice. Boris Johnson first mentioned the ‘invisible enemy’ just two days after Trump, and when the prime minister announced his own ‘wartime government’ on 17 March, he was deliberately evoking the alliance against Hitler. ‘Incredible’, an astute American friend observed at the time. ‘He’s dreamed of being Churchill in the wilderness for years. Now it’s all come true, and you can’t even complain about the war he’s chosen to fight.’ Three months on, her cynicism’s redundant. Winston Churchill, for all his flaws, rose heroically to the moment. Johnson, having targeted a morally indefensible foe, has been ceding ground throughout.

Caricatures notwithstanding, the prime minister is quick-witted and eloquent, and the difficulty he’s had in articulating this pandemic’s enormity is correspondingly telling. His first effort on 12 March – a sombre warning that many families would ‘lose loved ones before their time’ – was so surprising that it was impressive. But Johnson reflected a lot more anxiety than he soothed, and after COVID-19 came close to killing him, he seemed hostage to his own clichés. Speaking after his hospitalisation, he said that: ‘If this virus were a physical assailant, an unexpected and invisible mugger, which I can tell you from personal experience it is, then this is the moment we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor.’ Ostensibly heartfelt, the reduction of a brush with death to a supernatural street crime casts doubt on whether Johnson saw beyond his lucky escape at all. Even as an expression of optimism, the statement rang false. Since the day the coronavirus was supposedly wrestled to the floor, the number of lives it’s claimed has almost doubled.

Johnson’s inadequacy is so apparent that his approval ratings have plummeted, and since his dependence on Dominic Cummings was exposed last month, it’s become common to hear that he’s lost the psychological plot too. Rumours are circulating that late fatherhood is proving stressful or that post-intensive care syndrome has set in; my favourite fantasy is that shame is belatedly gnawing at his soul. Chances are he’s just finding hard work a chore though. And though his inner demons are probably awful to behold – more terrible than any invisible mugger – only one misfortune would definitely instil shame. Deserting the metaphorical battlefield would be an admission of real defeat.

My own bet’s on a prime ministerial offensive. Now that Johnson has announced a major dismantling of the lockdown on 4 July, he’s bound to try and switch attention to more comfortable political arguments – including Brexit – so as to recover his footing. That could make the next few weeks particularly dangerous. His lurch to liberation clearly owes more to calculations of political advantage than it does to serious assessments of practical readiness. Though Johnson told parliament on 20 May that the UK would have a ‘world-beating’ test-and-trace operation in place by the beginning of this month, recently released official statistics show that a quarter of those who’ve so far tested positive for COVID-19 haven’t been traced at all. That puts all the talk of invisible enemies into its proper context. If the government was focused on eradicating an unseen virus, a more efficient system to identify carriers would have been developed long ago.

I’m keener than ever to mix and mingle, but the prime minister’s claim to parliament yesterday that ‘at every stage, caution will remain our watchword’ inspires no confidence at all. With tattered military ambitions in mind, Boris Johnson’s performance reminded me of advice urged on Lyndon Johnson at a pivotal moment during the build-up of US troops in Vietnam: ‘Declare victory and go home’. That would have been a sensible strategy back in 1966 – countless lives would have been saved – but it would be a disastrous course of action today. That’s not to say risks shouldn’t be taken; they’re unavoidable. But this pandemic is a lot more complicated than the war Boris Johnson had in mind when it began – and its political challenges are only going to get tougher.

Covid#12 – Herd Fantasies (13 June 2020)

I was invited to a dinner party a week ago. The host was an old friend, now a senior doctor at a busy London hospital. When this pandemic started, he feared the worst. Though he didn’t say so, he thought his own number might be up. Over the next few weeks, as he and his colleagues battled to save lives, the surge in admissions threatened to overwhelm his hospital’s critical care units. By early April, fears of the virus were so intense that some victims were dying in isolation. Staff lent mobile phones to patients on their deathbeds, so they could say goodbye to people they loved.

Last weekend couldn’t have felt more different. As we traded lockdown tales in the garden – a conversational bargain, from my point of view – it became almost possible to forget that a cataclysm’s still in progress. And when I wondered what the coronavirus was going to do next, my friend, who always seems pretty buoyant, looked elated. He’s recently had an antibody test, and though he doesn’t recall suffering any illness worse than a chill this year, it showed he’d had COVID-19. As if astonishing himself, he held out clenched fists and opened them slowly. ‘Obviously it’s not just me’, he said. ‘Who knows exactly what it means? But in London, I’m pretty sure herd immunity’s been achieved.’

That says a lot more about my friend’s confidence than demonstrable reality. Though government serology testing suggests that at least 17% of the capital’s residents had COVID-19 antibodies by mid May (compared to 5% elsewhere), it’s not clear yet how – or if – they protect against re-infection. Insofar as there might be heightened resistance in London, it’s certainly not total. But the exchange got me recalling how contentious the hope for universal immunity has become – and how weird that is.

The controversies began with an appearance by Boris Johnson on ITV’s This Morning on 5 March. The prime minister told Holly and Phil that all the scientists he was talking to were ‘brilliant’, and that one of their many clever suggestions was that the population could maximise its resistance to COVID-19 by ‘taking it on the chin’. That was enough to convince some critics that the Tories were cooking up a plan to cull the weak and murder the old. But in the uneasy, apprehensive days of early March, a more common reaction was stunned surprise. A prime minister who’d built his career on levity was wondering whether the best way of tackling a lethal pathogen might be to spread it around. Many foreigners were just amazed, unsure if Britain under Bojo was more sacrificial or suicidal. My favourite response was a popular joke on the Chinese social media site Weibo: ‘After leaving Europe, they now want to leave the world.’

I was definitely among the stunned. Call me an apologist for genocide, but the hidden agenda struck me even then as more panic-stricken than sinister. Ministers and advisers weren’t being ruthless; they were in disarray. When Johnson took control of pandemic management at a COBRA meeting on 2 March – after delegating the job to Health Secretary Matt Hancock for a month – his priority was apparently to cling to boffins: claims to be ‘guided by the science’ quickly become a mantra among ministers. And though the government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said on 13 March that ‘herd immunity’ was one of ‘our aims’, the prime minister promptly lurched in favour of a strict lockdown – again, ‘on scientific advice’ – after a team of Imperial College epidemiologists under Professor Neil Ferguson published an urgent forecast. It warned that a failure to check COVID-19 would probably lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths.

That’s all history (except insofar as the machinations will one day be evidence in an inquiry) but neither the science nor the politics is settled. Ferguson proposed last week that locking down a week earlier would have halved this country’s death toll. The Swedish scientist most closely associated with an alternative policy, who advised his government to go easy on restrictions, has just said that in hindsight he’d have favoured stricter measures. Neither Patrick Vallance nor the government’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, are prepared to admit past mistakes, but both insisted on Wednesday that they were monitoring events carefully, because we’re ‘not at the end of this pandemic, not by a long shot’. And with shops and zoos preparing to open, school gates staying closed, and political protests multiplying, there’ll be plenty of events to monitor. While the scientists gather data, we’re living the experiment.

And even if government interventions should have been earlier or firmer, an alternative argument remains strong. In the absence of a vaccine, widespread immunity offers many countries their best hope of getting through this pandemic. Though right-wing extremists like Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro have yoked cynical political agendas to this claim, credible science also justifies it. The reasoning has been vocalised best by an academic who co-authored a paper published at Oxford University a week after Ferguson’s Imperial report. Professor Sunetra Gupta maintains that at least half the British population are already immune to COVID-19, and that the coronavirus is ‘on the way out’. Natural resistance or antibody acquisition explains why the disease has ‘grown, turned around and died away’ all over the world, ‘almost like clockwork’.

Gupta isn’t a fascist any more than Neil Ferguson is a snowflake. She objects to the ‘libertarian harangue’ that’s been ‘hitched’ to the scientific modelling of her Oxford team, she firmly supports enhanced protection for vulnerable people, and (as befits a scientist who’s also a prize-winning novelist) her stance is both nuanced and empathetic. Lockdowns aren’t just hindering the acquisition of immunity, in her view. ‘The truth is that lockdown is a luxury. And it’s a luxury that the middle classes are enjoying, and higher income countries are enjoying, at the expense of the poor, the vulnerable and less developed countries. To think of it simply in terms of “is this epidemic going to be over or not?” is really unconscionable.’ Personal factors might also explain her differences with Imperial – but if they do, Gupta isn’t entirely at fault. Her career was almost nobbled by false allegations in 1999 that she was sleeping her way up the career ladder – and though the man who slandered her duly lost his Oxford professorship, Roy Anderson took a team of 70 loyal epidemiologists with him to Imperial College. One of them was Neil Ferguson, who relied directly on a recent Lancet article by Anderson for the structure of the Imperial lockdown paper.

Scientists’ likeability and their rivalries don’t say much about the reliability of any particular piece of work, but the contrasting approaches of the Imperial and Oxford analyses still illustrate an important truth. Data is meaningless until it’s interpreted, and no one yet knows which interpretations of COVID-19’s spread are going to end up most accurate. Every epidemiological model in use at the moment draws heavily on what happened during the Spanish Flu pandemic a century ago (Neil Ferguson, like Anthony Fauci in the United States, has written influentially about what it might teach), but history only offers signposts. Though social distancing, school closures and the prevention of mass gatherings reduced fatalities back then, many deaths were delayed by months, not staved off for years – and that’s bound to be even truer of a coronavirus that disproportionately hits the old and sick. Spanish Flu also mutated far faster than COVID-19, and its vicious second spike can’t say much about what recurrent waves of infections will do today. In any event, lowering casualties by slowing down the world threatens collateral damage that’s simply unknowable. According to one guesstimate, global lockdowns could cause 1.4 million extra deaths before 2025 from tuberculosis alone.

No one’s necessarily to blame if epidemiological guidance turns out to be wrong: science does that sometimes, and politicians are elected to decide between options and put advice into practice. But judgments aren’t immune from criticism either – and even as I’ve been writing this post, a strategy to pretend otherwise has been on show. At last Wednesday’s Downing Street press briefing, Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty flanked the prime minister, and all three batted away journalists’ questions about whether they had made any mistakes. The scientists said it was too early to know, while Johnson deferred to their expertise. It was a smooth circle of excuses, for fixed decisions with final consequences. Key workers and health professionals were lethally under-supplied when they needed protective equipment most. Broken promises to ‘cocoon’ and ‘shield’ the vulnerable contributed to a care home catastrophe and a per capita death rate that might well end up the highest in the world. Though everyone’s able to shift responsibility for now, there’ll come a time when the political buck won’t be as easy to pass around . . .

Along with quite a few people I know, I’m vacillating between optimism and despondency at the moment, and last week’s dinner party kept me teetering. My upbeat friend was echoing hopes I share, but the risks from COVID-19 still feel very real. Holding back from an instinctive hug and handshake, he was entirely sympathetic. ‘You’re sensible’, he nodded. ‘That’s wise. Completely understandable. You’ve got mild panphobia.’ That came as news to me, and I turned over the diagnosis in my mouth as I cycled homewards. When I reached Battersea Bridge, curiosity got the better of me. Pausing to look at the river and absorb the nocturnal hush that’ll soon become unimaginable again, I keyed ‘panphobia’ into my phone. It turned out I’d been displaying symptoms of an ‘abnormal, vague, persistent dread of everything’. That sounded about right. But as I wobbled on, a tinge of irrational exuberance was added to the dread. Doctors know their stuff. Perhaps antibodies really are widespread? Even I might have picked up a few. I definitely remember a cough in February.

Covid#11 – Black Lives Matter (5 June 2020)

As usual these days, London’s on edge. Plenty of people look relaxed, almost carefree, but few conversations steer clear of COVID-19 for long. Others are wilfully careless: a recent Yougov poll suggests that the government’s indulgence of Dominic Cummings has caused 7% of the population to observe lockdown rules less strictly than before. There are probably serene corners of the capital somewhere, but the prevailing mood feels odd: impatient but also bewildered, touched by fears that a second wave of infections is already on the way.

Uncertainties on the ground are intensified by gnawing political doubts on high. Even The Spectator tentatively proposed last week that Boris Johnson ‘is not up to the job’, and on Wednesday, the Leader of the Opposition nailed the ominous implications. Keir Starmer has had Johnson’s measure for years – ever since they both worked within metres of each other in Doughty Street – and he was spot on when he accused the prime minister of ‘winging it’. The government started without a plan, and as Starmer said, it’s now trying to ‘exit without a strategy’.

Curious to see if one particular aspect of the lockdown might be weakening, I revisited Speaker’s Corner last Sunday. It wasn’t long before I found a preacher: the first returnee since March. Dr Banda had strong views about the nature of angels, the power of prophecy and Star Trek, and he claimed to have met a million people and not lost a single argument. As he explained how he’d predicted the miracle of the mobile phone, I grew tempted to take him on – at which point, coincidentally enough, my dad called. Was I at the protest, he wondered? A TV report from Trafalgar Square had just shown hundreds of demonstrators demanding justice for George Floyd, the black man asphyxiated on 25 May by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

Within minutes, I was there. The crowd had dispersed, but it hadn’t gone home. Placards multiplied when I got to Westminster, and by the time I crossed the Thames, pedestrians were streaming along the pavement at pre-lockdown rush-hour levels. Wobbling along the road, I became part of the march, and soon found myself beneath the Stars and Stripes outside the US Embassy at Vauxhall. Accompanied by boos and supportive car horns, people yelled a slogan that’s become almost traditional since Donald Trump’s election – ‘your pres-ident’s a wan-ker’ – along with a chant unheard in this country until last week. Again and again, the crowd repeated three words spoken by George Floyd as he lay dying under a policeman’s knee: ‘I can’t breathe.’

The suffocation of a defenceless black man so powerfully epitomises what’s rotten in the United States under its current ruler that it barely crossed my mind not to protest. But the thought of being elsewhere wasn’t unthinkable. Far from it. As the crowd grew, I kept recalling the anti-vaxxer protest I went to last month, and a remark I’d made soon afterwards that ‘gathering en masse during a pandemic is inherently dumb’. Vauxhall could hardly have felt more different – COVID-19 deniers and 5G fantasists were nowhere to be seen, while many participants were making obvious efforts to keep apart – but that’s only half an answer to charges of recklessness. The risk of a disease spreading through a crowd is determined by probabilities, not good intentions.

The reason I was prepared to take a chance is obvious: the protest felt important. And, subjective as that is, the sentiment reflects an attitude to risk that’s almost universal. Even my dad, a shielded 83-year-old who assumes the worst of COVID-19, expected me to demonstrate against George Floyd’s murder and was pleased when I did. Those who’d disapprove of that particular mass gathering might make greater allowance for others: a beachful of sunbathers, perhaps, or reopened schools. Tory legislators thought it sensible last week to oblige elderly and vulnerable MPs to swarm in to the House of Commons in person if they want to vote. Actions taken and precautions foregone during this pandemic are affected not just by science, but by passions and varied beliefs about the public interest.

Observations like that skirt around the trickiest issue of all: whether more mass action is desirable. No one seems more torn on that point than Black Lives Matter UK itself. Last weekend, it unhappily disavowed Sunday’s protest by referring to ‘the implications of calling a mass march in the middle of a pandemic that is killing us the most’; it’s now tweeting legal advice about what to do in the event of arrest. And confrontations are certainly possible. A head of steam is building behind plans for a second rally outside the US Embassy on Sunday afternoon . . .

My support for demonstrations so far has been informed by another subjective factor: one so complicatedly personal that I still can’t really work out where rational thought ends and wishful thinking begins. My perception of risk has been changing. I’ve come to suspect that immunity to COVID-19 exists, and that it’s widespread and durable enough to be significantly reducing the likelihood of the virus’s spread. The opinion’s not provable – but it’s not based on utter ignorance either, and the precautionary principle that’s often invoked to justify stricter regulations doesn’t defeat it. To explain why, I’d have to unpack a controversy over herd immunity that would distract from the theme of this post – but a point tangentially connected to my tentative argument is directly relevant.

As most people know by now, COVID-19 has a discriminatory impact. Black and Asian key workers have been exceptionally likely to fall victim (at least three-fifths of all health care staff killed by the coronavirus in the UK have come from these communities) and the greater vulnerability of non-white people was confirmed by a Public Health England report last week. As an analysis, the study was useless – hundreds of informed opinions canvassed during its preparation were suppressed, and it didn’t even pretend to explain the disparities it described – but one fact buried deep within its pages was striking, all the same. Deaths from all causes are up at the moment – in large part, because people are neglecting very serious health problems – and black men are more vulnerable than anyone else. Confirmed COVID-19 deaths in this group haven’t been immensely higher by comparison to white men (just 10%), and yet black men were more than twice as likely to die in the six weeks after the lockdown began. Set against mortality rates at comparable periods between 2014 and 2018, they’re dying nearly four times as often as normal.

The PHE report’s methodology is dubious, not least because it assumes all COVID-19 deaths were properly recorded as such, but this finding is still remarkable – especially because all non-white minorities, women as well as men, seem to be dying of non-COVID-19 causes at considerably greater rates than the white population. A convincing explanation of these excess mortality levels would have to look into all sorts of variables, including poverty levels, occupation choices and genetic predispositions, but one conclusion is already crystal clear. Non-white people, above all black men, are suffering a great number of avoidable deaths as a consequence of not just COVID-19, but the lockdown too. That’s no reason to be complacent about this coronavirus – it’s a racially selective killer in its own right – but it illustrates complexities that shouldn’t be ignored when discussing health precautions. Black lives matter.

Covid#10 – Driving Blind (29 May 2020)

Even before yesterday’s announcement that the lockdown’s being relaxed, London was feeling buoyant. COVID-19 is now spreading so slowly through the capital that infection statistics plotted on a graph look set to sink to zero within weeks – and though eradication’s still a fantasy, the city’s dismantling its defences. Police tape and plastic wrap is coming off park benches and playgrounds. Smoke’s rising from barbecues. Houseboats are hosting house parties. Social distancing continues, but social confinement is coming to an end.

As if the feel-goodery called for edgier excitement, central London also saw two major car crashes. The pile-up happened in Downing Street. In response to reports that Boris Johnson’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings had violated the lockdown by driving 260 miles to his parent’s farm in search of child-care options, the prime minister and his aide both staged press conferences. Though Cummings had dismissed the charge as ‘fake news’, he went on to confirm its substance in great detail. Issues arose that might one day be forgotten, from bladder control and petrol consumption to the wisdom of driving blind, but the takeaway was memorable. For my money, the pithiest assessment came from Nazir Afzal, a former senior prosecutor, who compared Cummings to a figure familiar to every criminal lawyer: ‘the suspect who creates a story around the known facts’. As though a Novichok assassin reminiscing about Salisbury Cathedral, he even explained why he’d been spotted on an excursion to a medieval tourist attraction. And like Prince Andrew, he radiated abnormal confidence. People would appreciate the truth, he was convinced, now that he’d spoken out.

If they did, it didn’t help. 71% of viewers polled just after the press conference thought Cummings had broken the law, and more than forty Tory MPs called for his departure. The reputation he’s built since Brexit as a strategic genius with his finger on the people’s pulse isn’t just mangled; it’s looking like a write-off. He’s either committed a crime, or co-designed lockdown rules so incomprehensible that everyone outside government misunderstood them.But Boris Johnson looks to have seen off the immediate threat, and that opens up a deeper mystery. He has many qualities, but loyalty and self-sacrifice aren’t among them, and his willingness to haemorrhage support for the sake of his advisor suggests deep dependency or fear. Smart political money explains it in terms of rivalry – the prime minister’s concern that his theoretical underling might back Michael Gove’s perennial leadership bid – but I prefer to imagine a darker secret. My pet hunch involves a lucrative publishing contract Johnson signed in 2015 to write a celebration of Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius. Throughout February, he laid low at Chequers, skipping five COBRA meetings in a row, and I suspected even then that he was pondering The Riddle of Genius with an eye on post-Brexit laurels and his half million advance. (He has relevant experience – The Churchill Factor got churned out while he was London mayor – and his fondness for deputising and springing surprises is notorious.) In any event, the prime minister’s inaction during that crucial month is a sensitive subject. Perhaps it’ll stay that way . . .

The scepticism made more plausible by Johnson’s retention of Cummings – and the specific belief that their health advice should be discounted – could have serious consequences. As of Monday, amended regulations will authorise the re-opening of shops, markets, car dealerships and schools, and groups of up to six people will be able to gather lawfully for the first time in ten weeks. Though millions of people will welcome the implication of returning normalcy, pollsters say more than half the country is worried that the lockdown is being loosened in haste. This tension’s bound to increase, and the risks are compounded by the government’s recent launch of a ‘world-beating’ track-and-trace system that the Health Secretary’s said will depend on ‘civic duty’: public goodwill, in other words. At a time when credible guidance and trust is essential, the government seems to be prioritising the prime minister’s comfort zone over the nation’s health.

That calls for reflectiveness as well as criticism though. Cummings isn’t the only lockdown violator in town, after all. I’ve certainly bent a few rules over the last couple of months, sneaking into friends’ gardens or loitering alongside acquaintances without reasonable excuse, and other people I know did worse. Only 43% of those who responded to a Daily Mail poll last week claimed never to have broken the health regulations at all. Hypocrisy at the heart of government is obviously of greater national significance (I hope), but that doesn’t make personal choices unimportant. Quite the opposite.


I happen to be feeling pretty optimistic at the moment. Though traffic jams are coming as an unpleasant shock, the routine amazements of London in the spring get me every time, and the reoccupation of pavement furniture and park lawns that’s currently under way feels like a little fiesta. But thousands of people are still catching COVID-19 every day outside the capital, and I wouldn’t yet bet on a smooth summer. Though the chance of a second wave of infections and the near certainty of an economic abyss still lie ahead, Boris Johnson has so thoroughly undermined his pandemic strategy that any effort among his ministers to promote it sounds insincere. It feels as though a gambler’s in charge, abetted by careerists and cowards. Important as it’ll be one day to recollect that, however, complaints can only go so far. We’re living in risky times, and it’s up to us to improve the odds.

Covid#9 – Yes To Life (20 May 2020)

Last Saturday, I faced a dilemma. A friend had told me about a ‘mass gathering’ in Hyde Park. A Facebooker she knew who called himself an astrologer, tarot reader and love guru had forwarded her the details. Urging people to protest against the lockdown by turning up with picnics and music, the UK Freedom Movement wanted everyone to ‘have some fun and say yes to life’. Though that sounded quite hedonistic, the only UK Freedom Movement with a website is made up of nationalists who want to ‘shake up British politics like never before’ and ‘fly the Union Jack at every opportunity we get’. By Friday, Twitter was abuzz with complaints, and two rival Islamophobes were denying involvement. I felt conflicted. Gathering en masse during a pandemic is inherently dumb, and the likely gatherers weren’t my kind of people. But the possibility of a new age neo-fascist love-in was too intriguing to miss.

I wrestled with my conscience. It’s hard to say who won, but the outcome was a compromise. It would be acceptable to cycle round Hyde Park, I decided, so long as I showed my disapproval of picnicking and protesting by wearing a mask. I duly bumped in to about 300 demonstrators milling around Speaker’s Corner, and spent half-an-hour loitering non-committally on the sidelines. There were flag-waving patriots, drum-banging Hare Krishnas, prophets of doom and admirers of Julian Assange. One man wanted people to remember God; another demanded that everyone remember Jeffrey Epstein. A speech by Piers Corbyn – the battier brother of Jeremy – was cut short by his arrest, but not before he instructed listeners not to be brainwashed and to remember that COVID-19 isn’t contagious on sunny days. It was a cacophony, but a couple of themes were recurrent. No one liked Bill Gates, and everyone seemed to agree that vaccinations were somehow at fault.

That’s triply weird, given that a COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t exist and may never be developed, but it’s underpinned by a logic of sorts. A narrative that’s been energising US anti-lockdown protests for more than a month now holds that Silicon Valley, in cahoots with Big Pharma, is whipping up fear because its leading figures stand to profit from a vaccine. And as Bill Gates was targeted by right-wing Republicans (because his medical priorities contrast so dramatically with those of President Trump), people on this side of the Atlantic took notice. One of them was ‘professional conspiracy researcher’ David Icke. Three weeks after recycling a bizarre theory about 5G telephone signals and COVID-19 without mentioning Gates, Icke disclosed on 6 April that Microsoft’s founder was ‘one of the most sinister people on Planet Earth’. In a broadcast that promptly became legendary among anti-vaxxers, he identified Gates as a member of a murderous cult that plans to control humanity using not just 5G frequencies, but microchips, nanotechnology and vaccines ‘full of shite’.

David Icke isn’t renowned for rigorous thinking. His most consistent opinion, maintained now for more than twenty years, is a belief that the world is governed by shape-shifting reptiles. Even people who greatly fear political manipulation typically think him unhinged. As a consequence, it was striking to hear an echo of his views outside Hyde Park on Saturday, when I stopped at Portobello Road on the way home. I told my regular mushroom supplier that I’d just been to a big picnic, and though I was smiling, he nodded grimly. He’d stayed away, he said, because ‘it’s not yet time, you gotta play the game’.

Eyebrows raised, I asked what that meant – and a very detailed explanation ensued. To paraphrase, Tom wouldn’t say he was anti-vaxx, he doesn’t know what to make of Bill Gates and 5G, and all he really understands about COVID-19 is that it isn’t as contagious as they say, but he wishes there could be a proper debate on TV. Stuff’s being hidden by scientific journals, he believes, and the mainstream media isn’t telling the full story. But he’s going to stick by the rules for the time being, because the financial support he’s received from the government is tiny, and he needs to sell his mushrooms. ‘You gotta play the game.’It’s always risky to read too much into a single conversation.

Anecdotes are no basis for theories. But the conversation with Tom didn’t just crystallise what had been obvious in Hyde Park: that lockdown impatience is breeding scepticism. It also made me recall a trio of modern cataclysms – the World Trade Center attacks, the Iraq War and Brexit – and the way that hesitant political divisions involving all three had quickly become chasms of misunderstanding. And though the speed with which those disasters have receded into history is a reminder that no aftermath lasts forever, the latest new normal feels particularly destabilising. My opinions about mass murder, civil liberties, military aggression and nationalism were almost predictable – but COVID-19’s riddles have thrown me. Questions about individual rights and duties and what governments should do to protect the vulnerable from the irresponsible are familiar, but the answers are suddenly personal. It’s not just whether to sacrifice some privacy and download a contact-tracing app; even watching picnickers is a moral choice.

The conflict between individual and collective interests is reflected starkly by attitudes towards a COVID-19 vaccine. Even assuming such a thing feasible, many people too fragile to be jabbed would remain susceptible to infection until at least 60% of the population, perhaps more, gained immunity. One person’s opt-out wouldn’t kill anyone – except, perhaps, the opter-outer – but collective abstentions certainly could. Deciding hypothetically to dissent might be principled; it’s certainly selfish.

Individualism isn’t irrational, and it’s not paranoid to point out that governments sometimes invoke the common good to cloak injustice and repression. But opposition to vaccination is regressive, all the same. That’s why the world’s poorer populations trust vaccines most, and it’s why Western opponents tend to be under-educated, politically disillusioned and socially disengaged. And though anti-vaxxing sentiments aren’t quite as capricious as the fears of 5G might suggest – because they’re part of a protest tradition that originated in reaction to 19th-century laws that made smallpox vaccinations compulsory – the instinctive disrespect for communal safety isn’t inspiring.

Less than a mile from Speakers’ Corner stands a memorial to Edward Jenner, the physician who coined the word ‘vaccine’, and as I cycled away from Saturday’s protest, I stopped to say hello. As a direct consequence of a pamphlet Jenner published in 1798, it became routine to immunise people against smallpox by injecting them with harmless doses of cowpox – and though it’s impossible to calculate how much suffering that alleviated, the number of lives saved runs into hundreds of millions.

The statue gets no more attention today than any of the other bronzes littering London, but it used to be more prominent. When unveiled in May 1858, it was in Trafalgar Square. Within days, MPs were demanding that ‘the promulgator of cowpox nonsense’ be removed, because he was ‘altogether out of place among statues of our naval and military heroes.’ Less than three years later, Jenner duly yielded his spot to Henry Havelock, a senior army officer who had died heroically of dysentery during the second Siege of Lucknow. The British Medical Journal wasn’t pleased, but it kept its criticisms sardonic. Jenner’s expulsion made sense, it observed, because ‘his honourable neighbours killed their fellow creatures whereas he only saved them’. Today’s anti-vaxxers might have some history on their side, but that’s a decent epitaph.

Covid#8 – Victory in Belarus (12 May 2020)

Contemplating catastrophe is part of the daily grind at present, and though I’m keener than ever on distractions, VE Day made me dwell on devastation some more. Wandering through council estates and parks in east London that owe their existence to Nazi bombs, I tracked down the landing sites of the first V1 and last V2 rockets to hit the capital. En route, I passed a plaque near Cable Street that’s always moved me: a memorial to 78 people taken by surprise in their cots and beds on the second night of the Blitz. Around forty thousand Londoners died that way, and the total number of British civilians killed was almost twice that number.

Once upon a time, I was hoping to be elsewhere. A couple of weeks before the lockdown began, I was shopping for flights to Minsk. Belarus lost up to a quarter of its entire population during three years of Nazi occupation – many more than a million people – and its ruler is even keener than our own to associate himself with wartime sacrifice and leadership. Within a year of winning the presidency in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko instituted a tradition of commemorating the Great Patriotic War with a march through Minsk. Attending the 2020 victory parade – three months before elections that will almost certainly secure him a sixth term – seemed a good way to get acquainted with the country he’s made his own.

Events intervened. On the same day that curiosity stopped being a reasonable excuse for leaving home in the UK, Belarus required that foreign tourists isolate themselves for 14 days. Insofar as that suggests a precautionary approach to public health though, it’s misleading. With a neo-Soviet folksiness he’s made his political trademark, Lukashenko told Belarusians back in March that COVID-19 was ‘a psychosis’ which could be overcome by driving tractors and washing with vodka, internally and externally. He then ignored WHO recommendations to extend physical distancing measures, and infections are now spreading faster than almost anywhere else in Europe. The official death toll is still below 150, but the true figure’s almost certainly higher: two TV journalists have just been stripped of their accreditation for discovering ‘an abundance of fresh graves’ in a cemetery just outside the capital.

All in all, it’s probably for the best that my sightseeing trip didn’t happen. There’d have been plenty to see though – because Lukashenko’s victory parade went ahead. On Saturday morning, thousands of flag-waving spectators, including veterans in their eighties and nineties, spent more than an hour watching their uniformed president take salutes from dozens of armoured formations and military battalions. The state-sanctioned livestream coverage on Youtube (snazzily remixed by me here: https://tinyurl.com/ybpqm7wp) showed packed crowds and few masks, and Lukashenko wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. A week earlier, he’d dismissed calls to cancel the parade by observing that the heroes of 1945 hadn’t let mere viruses stop them. Unless people showed otherwise, he warned, the world might think Belarusians were ‘scared’.

The political aim was transparent enough. Pretending to be the world’s bravest anti-fascist will bolster the president at home – especially because his frenemy Vladimir Putin decided last month to call off the even more spectacular celebrations he was planning for Moscow – and though an electoral landslide in August is all but guaranteed (Lukashenko’s vote has never been lower than 77%), autocrats crave popularity as well as power. But the recklessness is even clearer. A historic episode that US media have been recalling quite often in recent weeks is particularly ominous. On 28 September 1918, as a second wave of Spanish Flu was about to break across the United States, Philadelphia’s health commissioner authorised a huge fundraising parade for the war effort. Every bed in the city’s 31 hospitals was occupied within three days, and 12000 infected people died in a month. In St Louis, where a similar event was cancelled, the peak mortality rate was eight times lower.

A Belarusian friend, a little concerned by my fascination with Lukashenko, reminded me before the parade that no nation should be defined by its leader. The corrective was useful, and after the livestream, I discovered worlds of virtual opposition on Facebook and Telegram. Across Belarus, a network of volunteers has sprung into existence to equip health workers with PPE. Football fans have been calling on their own clubs to stop playing games, or paying to occupy stadium seats as photos on mannequins. On Friday, there was even a slightly socially-distanced public protest, involving four Minskers carrying a coffin past the capital’s premier shopping mall: https://tinyurl.com/yadjk2g4. Though Lukashenko has very definite priorities, sensible citizens aren’t relying on their ruler to save their lives. Appreciating that is has made me doubly fond of the city I didn’t visit, but it’s also provoked reflection on matters closer to home . . .

The weekend that began with a military parade on my laptop ended on Sunday evening with Boris Johnson’s much anticipated television address about the next stage of the lockdown. The time had come, he announced, to ‘stay alert’ rather than ‘stay at home’. The baffling change, complemented a day later by 50 pages of more detailed confusion, came with so many inconsistencies that they’re not worth individually identifying. But though it reflects an inattentiveness that’s characteristic of the prime minister, at least some of the instant criticisms levelled at his government struck me as misplaced. It’s not wrong in principle to argue for relaxation of the lockdown. It certainly isn’t malicious to observe that the longer people have to stay at home, the greater the suffering that might result from unemployment, impoverishment, untreated medical conditions and unhappiness in general. Lifting the lockdown isn’t just the eventual destination: it’s an increasingly urgent one.

It’s in that context that my virtual trip to Belarus this weekend was thought-provoking. In a pandemic, it’s crucial that politicians act in good faith to maintain health services, give citizens informed warnings, and protect vulnerable people. Beyond that, I’m not sure. No government can eliminate the danger of infection until development of a vaccine – and though the UK would ideally have as much control over COVID-19 infection rates as South Korea or New Zealand, 66 million UK citizens won’t easily be shepherded. Gambling with increased risks is becoming unavoidable, and government failings can’t eclipse the importance of personal choice and responsibility. To a greater extent than is comfortable, our collective lives are in our individual hands.

Luckily, I don’t need to end on that very earnest note. While writing this post, I learned that Vladimir Putin hasn’t actually cancelled his own parade. The 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender has just been postponed, apparently, and he says it’ll be celebrated later this year. Attending the festivities might still pose difficulties, and not just because Putin’s own position is starting to look a little precarious. Heathrow’s CEO recently claimed that socially-distanced boarding for a single jumbo jet ‘would require a queue a kilometre long’, and almost everyone returning to the UK from another country may soon have to self-isolate for 14 days. But if you’re interested in a Moscow trip, do let me know. It’d be nice to go in a group.

Covid#7 – The Sound of Silence (4 May 2020)

There’s no mood the Thames foreshore can’t improve – ebbs and flows are good for the soul – but the river’s almost too serene at the moment. People are still unofficially treasure-hunting, picking through the tobacco pipes and Tudor tiles that slosh in and out with the tide, but all Port of London mudlarking licenses are on hold. The boats that used to throb through the capital, all tinny tannoys and flashy discos, are anchored and tethered. The helicopter corridor is open for emergencies only, and flight paths from Heathrow to the estuary have fallen silent.

That got me thinking. Though London’s been looking apocalyptic and feeling atomised, it hasn’t been sounding desolate. A week after my Wapping adventure, it even felt a little musical. While cycling home from Hampstead, I saw something as startling as it should have been predictable: on the zebra crossing outside the Abbey Road Studios, no one was trying to re-enact the Beatles’ album cover. In visual terms, it was probably the dullest non-event I’ve ever photographed, but a couplet from the LP looped through my head all the way home. A minor epiphany – pedestrian, even – but I’ve been hearing the city a little differently ever since. It isn’t silent. It’s a soundscape of usually less audible noises – not just blackbirds and goldfinches, but gear changes on a bike and footsteps on a high street – as well as amplified memories. London’s haunted by the hubbub it used to be.

A couple of Sundays ago, I found out just how quiet the river’s become. For want of greater excitement, I clambered down a ladder near Wapping Pier and strolled across the mud with a friend. The tide was exceptionally low and, gazing over waters calm as a Canaletto, I thought of someone else who lives on the opposite shore in Rotherhithe. A telephone call later, she was at her window – and it wasn’t long before our chat turned to shouts. The yelling didn’t last long (too many eavesdroppers), but the fact it happened at all was surprising enough to provoke some online investigations. A sound archivist I then contacted at www.soundsurvey.org.uk was impressed. In days gone by, east London’s lightermen apparently used to identify each other through ‘distinctive ways of whistling, based on the songs of different bird species’, but ours was the first trans-Thames conversation Ian Rawes had ever heard of. A layer of warm air over cold water could have been acting as an acoustic lens, he said, but the exchange also had a simpler explanation: ‘the decline in traffic of all kinds: road, air and river’.

My pretensions to aural sensitivity have had a side-effect: ominous forebodings. Insofar as the lockdown has felt hushed, one reason is that its clang was so deafening. Boris Johnson’s reassertion of leadership has sounded a lot more post-traumatic than optimistic, and his claim last Thursday that we’re ‘past the peak and on the downward slope’ could hardly have been less ringing a forecast of recovery. Views about the way ahead, meanwhile, are thoroughly fragmented. Journalists are reporting, echo chambers are reverberating and everyone’s Zooming, but the semblance of a national conversation barely exists. Even the scapegoat hunters seem to be keeping their voices down: those on my Facebook feed are remarkably unsure whether capitalism, the media, 5G or Bill Gates is most to blame. Meanwhile, the House of Commons itself has dialled down the noise in the process of going semi-virtual. Under a pilot scheme launched on 21 April, no debate can now have more than 120 participants: fifty MPs in the chamber and the rest on video, laggy connections and Zoombombers permitting.

Every severe pandemic in history has left behind brittle institutions and crumbling social networks, and though COVID-19 isn’t as lethal as the Black Death or Spanish Flu, it’ll be similarly damaging. Post-Brexit Britain was hardly a purring political machine, but switching off the engines isn’t going to repair them, and it means that too many huge changes are being disregarded. Senior judges and lawyers are exploring, sotto voce, how best to curtail the right to jury trial. Attitudes towards the EU look frozen, at a time when future cooperation is more urgent than ever. The balance between public health and economic security isn’t being adequately debated, and the tax rises that will have to pay for both aren’t being openly discussed at all.

The streets of London are getting noisier now. I personally clocked a change just days after my trip to Wapping, when a cyclist next to me at a junction in Vauxhall blamed a sudden coughing fit on exhaust fumes. Though I made sure quickly to put great social distance between us, figures put out by Public Health England that same evening said that car journeys across the country were on the increase, and they’ve been rising in London ever since. Revised lockdown rules on Thursday will almost certainly turn up the volume some more. Traffic’s a superficial sign of normalcy though – and it feels as thought the capital’s quiet could give way to levels of discord that are no less intense. But perhaps I’m just being gloomy. Maybe it’s time for another walk along the foreshore . . .

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 (https://tinyurl.com/ycjmo8yu). 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.