By Catherine Franks
As we approach the one year anniversary of the virus hitting the UK, I have been reflecting on the past 12 months living and working under the shadow of Covid. The death of Captain Sir Tom Moore this week has also made me think back to the first lockdown in March 2020. It strikes me that how we are dealing with this crisis is holding a mirror up to the sort of government we have and the type of society that they envisage for us.
It feels like we are at a crossroads where we can either shrug and carry on or we can stand up and call for a radical change. At the moment it feels like we are destined to roll over and let things carry on and to be honest that idea is really getting me down. If you don’t want to hear a massive political rant, best turn away now.
The first lockdown hit different
The first lockdown seemed so different to what we are experiencing this time around. In March 2020 Coronavirus took most of us by surprise and there was a real feeling of all being in it together - we needed to act together to protect each other and the NHS. Government messaging (although late to the party) was pretty unified and we were instructed strongly to stay home. Neighbourhood groups organised shopping for the vulnerable and shielding, people stayed home if they were privileged enough to be able to do so.
As I look back on those days they almost assume a rosy nostalgic glow akin to the war years. Tom Moore fundraising for the NHS was the personification of this wartime spirit. We were sharing sourdough and banana bread recipes and pottering around planting vegetables like a rerun of The Good Life crossed with Contagion.
But, although the sourdough side of the story is the story of privilege, the fact that so many people were working from home and staying at home, meant that others who needed to get to work, who used public transport, who worked in essential shops were exposed to less risk due to there being less crowds in public places. And those essential workers who had always been invisible were suddenly being celebrated. We were clapping for the NHS, for carers, leaving signs out for the posties and bin men. There seemed to be a sudden recognition that all jobs matter. The humble barista and minimum wage service employee was suddenly missed as part of people’s daily routine. Their absence was felt and even acknowledged by many.
It genuinely felt, for the first time in my life (having come to political consciousness during Thatcher’s Britain, you remember that one where society no longer existed?) that there was a dawning awareness that we needed to work together to address the most pressing and catastrophic issues of our day - the pandemic, the climate emergency, growing global inequality. As the summer began and the BLM protests swept the globe it felt like there was an understanding that systematic change was long overdue and that we all should have a greater say in how our societies would be shaped moving forward.
During those first few months of lockdown, hibernating in our homes, emerging for one hour a day of exercise, we were grateful as the days got longer and the weather seemed to be the best that we had seen for a decade. Good news stories appeared about the drop in greenhouse emissions, the renewed love of cycling rather than driving, a newfound appreciation for fewer material things and a remembrance that friends and family are what matter most. We missed seeing friends, hugging our mum, the daily small human interactions that had suddenly been snatched away from us and those things seemed to gain value.
Yes, this is a snapshot of rose tinted privilege! NHS workers, those in the service economy, people working in the lowest paid, most dangerous and most insecure jobs continued to work and be exposed to risk. The self employed, those in creative fields, carers, a multitude of others fell through the gaps in support offered by the government.
Lockdown easing, Chapter 1
As we came to summer 2020 and lockdown restrictions began to ease some things became clear. You know how when the snow starts to melt in the spring and a winter’s worth of dog crap starts to appear on the sidewalks? Well this was a bit like what happened as the initial panic over Covid receded.
First, it became clear that there were different laws for different people - we were not all in it together after all. The Dominic Cummings fiasco held the national magnifying glass to this glaring inequality. Yes, we had to stay home to protect the NHS. But only if we are not in government or some other position of privilege. This quite understandably led to a slow and steady slide away from government imposed rules.
On the heels of this followed a whole catalogue of contradictory government messaging about where were were supposed to be and what we should be doing that by the end of the summer nobody could keep track let alone manage to care anymore. I think there was something about 6 people but honestly I have no idea. Personally, I stopped watching the updates, served coffees from behind a mask in a hatch and focussed on pivoting our business to online as much as possible.
For all of this government’s talk about ‘levelling up’, the way in which the different parts of the country have been treated when it comes to lockdown and support has also highlighted the massive divisions between North and South and wealthy and poor. While the richest in our country have managed to do very well through Covid - it helps to be a friend of certain government ministers it seems - and massive corporations have become even more successful, the poorest and most vulnerable in our society have seen their already shameful living standards plummet further. A whole generation of young people have had their exam results, final years of schooling and first years of work possibly permanently impacted. Rates of depression, suicides, potential long term harm to mental health are really not being given the attention or support they need and deserve. Covid has had vastly worse impacts on BIPOC communities yet that story gets little attention in the UK media.
The free school meals scandal showed how over and over again the UK government has shown a total lack of concern for the most vulnerable and voiceless in our society. Thank God that a voice rose up for them as Marcus Rashford and the campaign for free school meals has been one of the few rays of light through these dark political times. I believe this campaign above all others has shown the caviler and careless attitude of the Prime Minister for what it is - plain selfishness.
At the end of the day, selfishness is at the heart of our political problem and it is what is characterising the shift that I am feeling as we go through this second wave of Covid and lockdowns. Selfishness is what has taken the rosy glow away and made this lockdown seem harsh and hopeless.
Selfishness is something that this government has cultivated at every turn.
From us to me
Let’s go back to last summer. While we were running out into the sunshine after lockdown and queuing up for ice creams, the government started running their confusing and contradictory messaging. On the one hand there was veiled criticism of ‘selfish individuals’ especially young people - having picnics in parks, crowded beaches - remember the pictures of Blackpool? Yet at the same time the government launched the ‘Eat out to help out’ campaign.
I remember at the time this was launched I had an incredibly strong reaction against this initiative - almost a visceral hatred of the whole idea. I didn’t spend too much time thinking about it at the time, needless to say our business did not participate. It just seemed wrong to be encouraging people to gather together in closed spaces at a time when we only just seemed to tentatively have control over the spread of the virus.
Now looking back I think I can articulate better why this approach was so wrong footed. First, remember the context that this is happening in as the government persistently cut meals to the poorest children during the school holidays. Secondly, the queues at food banks continued to grow alongside the unemployment figures. Thirdly, the programme prioritised the luxury and entertainment of the better off (who else is going out for restaurant meals during a pandemic other than those in secure employment WFH?) over the basic health and safety of low paid hospitality workers. Anyone who has ever worked in hospitality can tell you that working behind a busy coffee bar, in a commercial kitchen, from a take away hatch or from a food truck is not something you can do while physical distancing.
Business owners can get all the government grants, furlough payments etc they like and can put up sheets of perpex between all their tables to give customers the feeling that eating out is safe. But I can assure you that it is not safe for those working a ten hour shift serving that food.
In addition to the misguided Eat Out to Help Out scheme, there was furlough. It seemed crazy to me that instead of paying a basic income to everyone so that they could stay safely at home until the pandemic was under control, the government was instead focussing on an incredibly complex support system that perpetuated existing income inequalities and was so vulnerable to fiddling by employers.
Over this past year I have heard countless stories of the way that hospitality workers have been abused by employers during the pandemic - from being forced to work in unsafe conditions, to working ridiculous hours, to being forced in to work while their employer claims furlough. Make no mistake, this is an employers’ market. The sudden crash in hospitality and retail work means that there is no job security and unscrupulous employers can call the shots. The take away loophole means that although many small businesses have closed, others remain open and some are making a killing. Don’t get me wrong, as a small business owner I really want small local businesses to survive. But I am also really worried about a whole generation of young people who are missing out. Their schooling is being trashed, their entry into the job market deferred, those who have entered the further education system have had a nightmare paying rent while being forced to stay home, interrupted learning and the missing out on all that life learning that comes with moving away from home for the first time. What a raw deal! Why are the needs of businesses a greater priority than those of an entire generation. Oh yeah, GDP and short term political expediency. The education and wellbeing of young people hardly seems to register.
Meanwhile, simplistic government messaging encourages us to think like children - getting our Christmas taken away, complaining about what are we ‘allowed' to do rather than on focussing on what is the right thing to do. Now there is all the talk about whether we should be told straight that summer holidays abroad are not going to be possible this year. For goodness sake, shouldn’t we be more worried about all of the people dealing with death and bereavement, mental health issues, trauma amongst NHS workers working at the sharp end? Does the media really think it is more important to whine about not going to the Costa del whatever?
I read an interesting article recently about how societies that emphasise community over rugged individualism are the ones who are managing the Covid crisis best. It is no surprise then that individualistic societies like ours and the USA are topping the league table for the most Covid deaths.
So the nub of it is this - the polices the government have put in place and the way they have confused the messaging over coronavirus has had an effect. It has pitted us against one another and it has encouraged selfish behaviour. Our individualistic bent has been encouraged, again hardly a surprise from this nationalistic flag waving government.
The result of this is that as we approached a tough winter, where it had long been predicted that we would face a second wave, we approached it utterly unprepared. Instead of blaming the government for this mess (What happened to track and trace? Why was there never appropriate controls at the borders? You would have thought this would be a given in Brexit Britain?) we turned on each other. All those people with their house parties and their walks in the park caused this second wave apparently, not the lack of track and trace or border controls. Confusion over mask wearing and a lack of solid scientific approach to vaccine messaging means that fear and misinformation has been allowed to run rampant online and FaceBook warriors have had their voices amplified out of all proportion. (My last brief mention of masks on an Instagram post resulted in a string of around 17 messages from one particular woman)
So during this latest lockdown, supermarket shelf stackers work flat out in crowded stores, hospitality workers are tucked like sardines behind take away counters and queues form down the block outside the latest trendy doughnut outlet. Meanwhile NHS staff deal with emergencies and trauma daily. Where do we go from here?
How 2021 is going so far…
It’s dark, it’s cold. Today feels like it like it will never stop raining! We have watched literally all of Netflix, Prime ands the Disney channel and a year of not hugging our friends is taking its toll on our mental health. The small daily conversations - at the coffee bar, or with our colleagues - feel like they are further away than ever.
Honestly, I am more worried about Covid now than I was a year ago. What is going to be the effect of these new variants? Will we go through all this again next winter? How many of the prime years of their lives will our young people miss?
I feel angry at how useless the government is. How cruel and uncaring they are and how powerless we seem to be to change anything. It is no surprise really that the Conservative government has dealt with the Covid crisis the way it has. Of course our multi-millionaire Chancellor is going to implement a support package that targets the already well off and disadvantages the poor. Of course our craven Prime Minister is going to bow to the merest breeze of political expediency.
As angry as I am at the government I am equally if not more angry at how powerless they have made me feel. I look with longing at the grassroots political mobilisation happening in America - from BLM to Stacey Abrams to the wave of idealistic lawmakers coming from non-political backgrounds like AOC, Cori Bush and Jon Ossof. Also I love the biting and powerful online accounts that use humour to mobilise and the new technologies being used to hold the traditional bastions of power to account. The unfolding Game Stop saga has been beautiful and affirming to watch.
Where are the UK equivalents? Our political system seems so archaic, so boring and dusty, so hopeless. I have lived in Scotland for over 30 years now and have never once felt I have had a government that represents my beliefs or prioritises what I feel is important (racial, economic and environmental justice, if you want to know). We do have heroes in the UK, as Marcus Rashford has shown, we just don’t seem to hear about them so easily. If you follow any good UK online news channels or accounts please let me know.
Maybe this is just the weariness of lockdown speaking. Maybe the relentless job of navigating the waters of business survival, duty to community safety and the welfare of my team are causing me to tire. My little life raft is the online community and business we have built. The support of like minded people has shown that I am not alone with these thoughts and frustrations. Maybe this is what has compelled me to share these Lockdown Two thoughts. If you have actually stayed with me, thank you, maybe something has resonated.
How are you feeling? Can you send me small kernels of hope?