There was no ‘Journal of the Covid Years’ this week – the first week since February that it hasn’t appeared. The diaries covered February 2020, when the word “coronavirus” first entered our consciousness to July 2020, when we could finally go to a café and get our hair cut. That seems a sensible point to pause. From July to September, the world opened up. It was a time of picnics, socialising and plans. It became our social duty to eat as many restaurant meals as possible: “eat out to help out”.
It wasn’t over, of course, however often we assured each other than things would get better. On 13 September, we had a new rule that we could only meet six people out of doors. By October, London was placed in “Tier 2”, meaning no indoor mixing. In November we got a “circuit breaker”. And then the low point, announced on 19 December. Effectively, Christmas was cancelled. No-one in London could allow someone outside their support bubble to enter their home.
So how do we remember these experiences? Our time sense becomes mushed, in the face of ever-changing rules. What were they? Did we obey them? Our memories can’t cope with the complexities. Instead, we have a mash-up of blue skies, bird song, isolation, broken nights, changed plans and endless zoom meetings.
When the nights are longer and there is less to do, my plan is it edit the whole two years, setting the diary entries against the official “history” of what was going on. I’m trying to get hold of the complexity of the whole experience: some path between lockdown nostalgia, recalling the blue, empty days of May, and visceral anger over the restrictions.
Was my experience typical, in any way? It would have been different if I’d been on my own or with a large family. It would have been massively harder in a one-room flat, or without a job, or if I’d been shielding. Other than that, it is difficult to say. There were so many people we didn’t see – so how can we know? Someday, enterprising historians will analyse a lot of lockdown diaries to produce a social history of the period. This will be one small perspective.
Did we abide by “the rules”? Yes, by and large we tried to do the right thing. And when we didn’t know what the right thing was, we did what we were told. But not always. Don’t judge. [Ed: what we weren’t doing was having large boozy parties and pretending they were ‘work events’. So maybe we can judge a little.]
Did the UK Government get the “big calls right”? It got some calls right, particularly in 2021, over vaccination. But like all Governments, it got lots of calls wrong. We were too slow going into lockdown; we should have gone for masks earlier; the Tiers system was impossible to understand; the return to schools and universities in September 2020 was mishandled. Did it make a huge difference? Probably not. The Scottish and Welsh Governments may have been more cautious but suffered similar deaths in the end.
In retrospect, one of the biggest mistakes may have been to try to reconcile lockdowns with economic activity. In 2021, the greatest prohibitions were on seeing friends and family. It was a world in which a lover or parent could not enter your home, but an estate agent or cleaner could. The dichotomy was a false one. Why would we buy clothes, if we didn’t meet people? Why would we go to pub, without company? Social bonds and economic activity turned out to be linked.
And finally, how did the experience change us? I hesitate to answer this question – perhaps it is just too early to say. It has certainly changed our relationship to work. Work is now about tasks. It is something you do – not someone you are. Without the whole rigmarole of getting dressed up, and going to the office, and getting into an office mindset, employers have less power to get inside our heads. And I’ve slowed down and travel less. We have booked a trip to Argentina later this year, on the grounds that if we don’t go now we never will. We suspect it may be the last big intercontinental trip we ever make. The world is changing and becoming smaller.
Of course, social changes aren’t all about the pandemic. If the tide of ever-expanding globalisation turned with the Brexit referendum in 2016, the war in Ukraine is now causing a rip-current, leaving a lot of old certainties stranded on the beach.
I’ll let you know how I get on, when I’ve finished the edit. Meanwhile – please leave comments with the answers to any of these question.