Well, the big clear out of the diary continues apace: just about everything in my diary up to the end of April has been cancelled or deferred ‘sine die’, as the saying is. Some meetings are being switched to video conferencing while other matters are being cleared by email and telephone, but all the social engagements such as meals out with friends and trips to the theatre have been wiped from the diary. A couple of short breaks booked for May have also gone and it’s likely this trend is going to continue for some time yet.
All this is, of course, no more than a minor inconvenience when compared with what is happening elsewhere in the country (and, indeed, the world) at this moment. Spending so much time at home, it’s difficult to avoid watching the news. Minute-by-minute briefings on the numbers of people being admitted to hospital, being taken into intensive care and, in some cases, sadly dying, really do make one realise the enormity of the situation. It’s too early to speculate on how long this is going to continue, but there’s no obvious end in sight yet.
As I write this, it’s been nearly three weeks since, on 23rd March, the Prime Minister declared the country was going into ‘lockdown’. Although it had been much anticipated, the announcement still hit hard: it was important, it felt momentous, it was certainly going to be life changing. Suddenly, freedoms we have taken for granted were being curtailed by a government responding to unbidden events. At the time of the announcement, the call for people to stay at home was actually no more than guidance – new legislation had to be brought into effect to give it legal backing and confer powers on the police to enforce it, but I suspect most people could see the thinking behind the decision and I’m sure many would regard it as a sensible and necessary step, at least for the time being.
The full implications of the announcement take a while to sink in. Yes, social distancing means curtailing movement. Some of us are ‘old hands’ at this social distancing business having had a head start of a week or two by choice so it seems at first that it’s going to be more of the same. But this is different. What had been voluntary if recommended behaviour, now carried a government mandate enforceable in law (although it takes a few days for the paperwork to be completed, leading to some confusion, not just in the minds of the public but also, it seems in the instructions being given to some police forces).
We are urged only to leave home in certain prescribed circumstances – such as to shop for essentials such as food and for medical reasons, to exercise, to go to work but only if it isn’t possible to work from home. Businesses not regarded as essential have closed their doors, moving their business on-line where they can. Theatres, cinemas, restaurants and bars are all closed.
And when we do go out, we have to keep a distance of two metres from other people who are not members of our own household. Suddenly, even talking to neighbours over the garden fence is conducted at a ‘safe distance’, hailing each other in loud voices or waving to each other rather than chatting casually with our elbows resting on the fence.
The two-metre rule causes some interesting distancing manoeuvres at the supermarket. These days, we have to queue to go in. Despite markings on the floor every two metres to show people where to stand and signs showing that two metres is roughly equivalent to the length of two shopping trollies, there are some, it seems, who either have no understanding of how far two metres is or are just playing it very safe indeed. Gaps in the queue open up – what is two metres to you and me turns out to be closer to something around 15 feet to others.
Once inside the supermarket, where the aisles don’t really lend themselves to keeping the full two metres between shoppers, people try to observe the guidance: they wait politely for each other to make their selections from shelves, trying not to show impatience when someone lingers a little too long in front of the canned veg or tinned fruit (how long does it take to choose a tin of peas?). Then, items selected, they move on, continuing their elaborate cotillion, trollies pirouetting around each other at arm’s length as they mark out their territory.