Has the national life of this country ever been transformed so completely and at such a speed? In the course of a week, the British landscape has changed and changed utterly. Once crowded streets are deserted. Schools are closed, summer exams cancelled. Football grounds are shuttered and padlocked. Theatres are dark, cinemas silent. They’ve even stopped changing the guard at Buckingham Palace – and from Friday night the pubs are shut.
The economy has juddered into reverse, set to shrink by 15% according to some estimates – a collapse more catastrophic than the Great Depression. Each day has brought news that, in normal times, would constitute an epochal, ground-shaking development but which, in the current climate, has struggled for airtime. The Bank of England cut interest rates to their lowest level since the Bank was founded in 1694, and announced an infusion of £200bn. The pound slid to its lowest level against the dollar since the mid-1980s. Meanwhile, a Conservative government has torn up 40 years of small-state, free market doctrine, first promising to spend a staggering £330bn, and then on Friday evening committing to pay 80% of the wages of workers who have had to down tools, with “no limit” on the funds available. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, did not exaggerate when he said nothing like this had ever been done before. Even hardcore socialism usually stopped short of calling for the government to take on the payroll of private sector employers. Now it’s Tory party policy.
That represents a profound political shift. Just as there are no atheists on a sinking ship, there are no free-marketeers in a pandemic. Suddenly the old arguments of left and right have melted away, as a Tory health secretary commands the British manufacturing industry to start making ventilators, explaining that only government – not the private sector – has the clout to fight this menace.
Even the language has changed with astonishing speed. “Social distancing”, “self-isolation” and “WFH” entered near-universal usage in a matter of days, matching the velocity with which personal behaviour had to change. It began with the awkwardness of the rejected handshake, an elbow-bump offered in its place, a practice which seemed novel a mere fortnight ago – and it ends with people sharing a pint by each drinking alone in their homes, but doing it on a screen via FaceTime, Skype or Zoom.
In this new landscape, the only meeting places are virtual, with social media the obvious forum. Much of the online conversation has consisted of bickering over the best way to resist the disease, with last year’s armchair Brexit experts now miraculously reborn as amateur epidemiologists, seamlessly able to move from offering detailed commentary on international trade to the finer points of herd immunity.
Social media’s most energetic function has been as village rumour mill. On Wednesday, the Twitter talk was of a “London lockdown”, as people traded frantic word they’d picked up – often from a friend of a friend in the government/police/army – that the capital was about to be sealed off, all entry in and out prohibited, armed checkpoints on the M25. But the next day, Boris Johnson was at his 5pm podium in Downing Street installing no ring of steel around the city, but merely issuing advice and recommendations – not even ordering the pubs to lock their doors, let alone locking down London.
Throughout, Britons have groped for the right comparison and of course there was only ever going to be one. “The Queen’s blitz spirit pledge: I’m ready to play my part,” splashed Friday’s Daily Mail. In this telling, the coronavirus is the Nazi enemy and Britons will once again stand together, united, ready to endure any hardship and sacrifice any personal comfort for the sake of our collective survival.
It barely matters that that’s a shaky version of what actually happened in the blitz – when East Enders booed the visiting King and Queen, when the rich had access to better, more comfortable underground shelters and when black marketeers made a nice living out of everyone else’s suffering. Never mind that, 1940 remains the creation myth of modern Britain, the ultimate yardstick by which any national experience is measured. In the case of the coronavirus, though, it feels an especially bad fit.
For one thing, stoicism in the face of danger has not quite been our national look. Those images of shoppers coming to blows in the supermarket aisles, wrestling over bulk packets of toilet roll, might not be ones to inspire our grandchildren. As one observer put it, contemplating yet another shared photograph of a denuded grocery store: “All those empty shelves in supermarkets are where the stiff upper lips were supposed to be. So much for national self-mythology.”
Still, what many mean to invoke when they speak of the second world war is unity. It’s too early to say now whether Britons are united in the face of this crisis, which has a long way to run. The initial signs were encouraging. Opposition politicians have been willing to support their government counterparts, with political point-scoring kept to a minimum. Johnson’s readiness to defer to the experts, sharing his daily platform with the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser, has marked a welcome contrast with his own, populist, expert-bashing during the 2016 Brexit referendum – and the public had seemed to follow the PM’s cue. When it was a matter of just washing our hands and singing Happy Birthday twice, it was easy to maintain consensus, guided by the science.
But cracks are showing now. Even those who want to be trusting of those in authority, who’ve been willing to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt, have been asking why Britain is not testing for the virus with the same thoroughness as, say, Germany.
Why are doctors and nurses not being routinely tested, or given the right protective equipment? Why were more ventilators not ordered weeks ago? And if the government is asking people to stay home, what will it do to ensure they can afford to do that? How will it put money in the pockets of the self-employed now earning nothing? How will it prevent small businesses going under, enabling them to pay their workers, so they can feed their families? Sunak sought to address those last three questions with his extraordinary announcement on Friday. But the government has been on the back foot, forced to react, on all of them.
These are not mere differences of opinion. As in the blitz, there are differences in behaviour, which seem to speak, ultimately, to differences in character. Britannia Hotels sacked more than a dozen staff from their hotel in the Scottish Highlands this week via a “services no longer required” letter, ordering those workers to leave the premises, instantly rendering them homeless. At the same time, football pundit Gary Neville announced that the two hotels he owns with his former teammate Ryan Giggs would be closed to the public, and given over instead, free of charge, to NHS workers unable to stay with their families. The employees would keep their jobs and be paid in the normal way.
There were reports of local grocery stores creating care packages for the elderly, delivering them to their door for free. But there was also a viral video of a nurse, Dawn Bilbrough, sobbing into the camera after coming off a 48-hour shift only to discover there was no food left in the shops. Bilbrough warned those picking the shelves clean that they would need nurses like her to look after them “when you’re at your lowest”.
Many of these divisions come down to the government’s preference – which held until Friday – for the voluntary over the compulsory. By making a visit to a pub or cafe a matter of individual choice, it opened up a rift between those who chose to stay home and those who didn’t, with the former increasingly resenting the latter. On one side, you had Wetherspoons’ owner Tim Martin demanding pubs like his stay open – breezily asserting without evidence that “there’s hardly been any transmission of the virus within pubs” – while an intensive care consultant called a phone-in programme, imploring listeners to understand that if you go to the pub, “it’s going to kill people”.
Some of that divide is regional – London’s infection rates have soared, as the buses and underground have stayed running and bars remain packed – and some of it is generational, with young people singled out for failing to heed the advice and stay home. But all of it arose from Johnson’s reluctance to lay down the law. Long a social libertarian who bristled against the roundhead diktats of “the nanny state”, Johnson realised too late that his approach was just too cavalier.
Once controls become more stringent, some of the current divisions will surely fall away. Once everyone is in the same situation, even if that means everyone equally confined to their homes, it will be hard, painfully so. But we will all be in it together.
What has been spoken of less in this week of transformation is the emotion driving it all: namely, fear. When people see that Britain is on an even steeper death curve than Italy, they become terrified. Arguing about policy on Twitter is a good displacement activity for people petrified of dying a horrible death in a hospital too overrun to help. Even before it has killed Britons in huge numbers, it’s already got under our skin – reminding us that we are not masters of nature, but vulnerable to a tiny, microscopic virus; that even the mighty civilisation we have built on these islands hangs by a thread.