ANNE MARIE WATERS’ SUNDAY COLUMN
Is The Lockdown Ending?
Sunday May 3rd 2020
It’s something that none of us have known before, and life is unlikely to return to what we once knew. At present, one third of the world’s population is on ‘lockdown’. What a staggering reality. Lockdown means different things in different countries, but only by degree, the reality is that one third of the world’s people are in some way restricted – not able to leave their homes except for essentials, not able to work, not able to see family and friends, no socialising, no cinema or theatre or cafes or bars or clubs or societies or parks or museums. It’s all gone.
But there are signs. Green shoots are beginning to blossom through the cold ground. While there is still a long way to go, we should try to be positive. Lockdown may well be coming to an end.
Let’s look at what has been happening so far, starting with friends and neighbours.
Irish Premier Leo Varadkar confirmed this weekend that schools and colleges will reopen at the start of the new academic year in September/October. Some restrictions on daily life have also been lifted. For example, people in Ireland have been unable to leave home except for essential items, but this is now slowly being lifted. People over the age of 70 can now leave home for isolated exercise and can do so within a range of 5 km from their homes. Other restrictions will remain in place until May 18th. From this date, construction can resume as well as other outdoor activities including sports (in small groups).
The Spaniards have been subjected to a more stringent lockdown than we have here in the UK. From day one, we in Britain have been permitted to leave our homes for exercise once a day. Not so in Spain, only essential shopping has been allowed. This is now ending. From the 2nd of May, children in Spain will be able to leave their homes accompanied by an adult. Everyone is allowed to go out for essential exercise once per day. From this coming Monday, face masks will become compulsory on public transport as government provides millions of masks to local authorities for distribution. Hotels will reopen on May 11th with social distancing rules in place. This has been criticised however by the Hotel Business Association of Madrid, which expressed “disbelief” that hotels would open despite the fact that “the arrival of clients is impossible”. Spain’s beaches will be closed until June, and travel within the country restricted until the same time.
Shops are reopening slowly in Germany. Shops no larger than 800 square meters were allowed to resume business last week. Also reopening are car showrooms, bicycle shops, and bookshops, but with social distancing rules applied. Like Spain, face masks will now be compulsory on public transport and almost all German states will enforce mandatory mask use while shopping. Europe’s richest country has however reported a predicted economic shrink of as much as 6.3% this year.
Austria has also made face masks compulsory on public transport and like Germany, has begun to reopen its shops. All shops have been allowed to open from May 2nd but bars, restaurants, and other entertainment will remain out of bounds until at least mid-May. Gatherings of more than 5 people remain banned and many non-essential shops remain closed.
Moving faster than most in Europe, Switzerland already started lifting restrictions on April 27th. Florists, hairdressers, and garden centres have reopened, with schools due to do the same on May 11th. Bars and restaurants will remain closed until at least mid-June.
Unusually in Europe, Sweden has not instituted a lockdown – unlike its fellow Scandinavians Norway and Denmark. Sweden has taken the approach of allowing its citizens to decide for themselves what constitutes responsible behaviour, and has “advised” rather than obliged separation measures. Children have continued to go to school throughout, and bars and restaurants have remained open. Images of people in Swedish bars and cafes have raised eyebrows across Europe. Large events have however been banned, and workers “advised” to work from home when possible and refrain from non-essential travel. The Swedish government has defended its position and insisted that COVID-19 will be with us for a very long time, so we must learn early on how to live with it without shutting down society. There are some rules however; in bars and restaurants, people are required to stay an arm’s length apart, and gatherings of more than 50 people have been banned. Sweden has a population of just over 10 million people. It’s COVID-19 stats are these: confirmed cases – 22,082, deaths – 2,269 (May 3rd 2020). For comparison, the combined population of Norway and Denmark is also approximately 10 million. The stats for these countries: Norway – 7,809 cases with 211 deaths, Denmark – 9,407 cases with 475 deaths. Combined then, Norway and Denmark have seen 17,216 cases of infection, and just 686 deaths; far lower than Sweden.
France’s leaders have begun to discuss lifting the country’s lockdown that is now 6 weeks old. To “avoid economic collapse”, France intends to slowly lift restrictions on May 11th. Shops and restaurants may reopen on this date (though not if they are based within shopping centres). The government recognises however that this date may need to be revised. Schools may reopen in France on May 18th, but with only 15 pupils per classroom. Paris’ transport system is due to reopen in mid-May with 70% of services expected to run. The introduction of face masks will accompany the reopening and passengers will be expected to leave an empty seat between them. Travel further than 100 km from home will be restricted to business and urgent family matters.
America’s response to coronavirus has seen mass protests erupt across the country. Americans want to get back to work. But America has also been the hardest hit nation on earth; it has had 1.16 million confirmed cases and 67,067 deaths. At its lockdown peak, over 90% of the US population was restricted. The lifting of these restrictions will largely be left to individual states, but Federal demands include social distancing rules be kept in place at least until the end of the summer. Some states have already begun to reopen, with more due next week. Georgia, Oklahoma, Alaska and South Carolina have already allowed some businesses to reopen. Colorado will allow businesses, including hairdressers, tattoo artists, and “kerb-side” shops to reopen from Monday. Similarly, Tennessee will allow restaurants and bars from Monday, with Montana following on May 7th. California had instituted a state-wide stay-at-home order but when people flocked to beaches in good weather, authorities were content that they were following social distancing rules. New York also instituted a state-wide lockdown; this ends on May 15th.
Australia has been relatively lucky with this virus. A small number of deaths – 93 – have been recorded, and the infection rate is at 6,783 as of May 3rd. Each state in Australia has taken a different approach. Sitting alone in a park for example is ok in Victoria, whereas in New South Wales, people are only allowed out for essential exercise once a day. In Queensland, people are permitted to sit in parks with family members; similarly in Australian Capital Territory. In Western Australia, gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited. In both South Australia and the Northern Territory, people are permitted to leave home without reason and, like Sweden, have been expected to take personal responsibility for social distancing. In Tasmania, people are permitted to leave the house only for essential reasons. In recent days, individual states have begun to ease some restrictions, including allowing people to visit other households provided distancing measures are kept in place.
The source of the virus, China began lifting restrictions some weeks ago. The lockdown on the city of Wuhan, where the virus originated, was lifted as early as April 8th. Most shops are now reopened, as are the notorious “wet markets” from where the disease is believed to have begun its worldwide journey. It is difficult to obtain reliable information about goings-on inside communist China, but reports say that travel has increased by 50%, and the Chinese have begun splurging on big brand names since their shops reopened.
Back home in the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has spoken openly about his own COVID-19 infection. Johnson reported that contingency plans were put in place in the event of his death, and that he had needed “litres and litres” of oxygen during his hospital stay. He returned to work last week and says he is determined to prevent others suffering as he had done.
The UK has been on lockdown now for more than a month, and government tells us that we are now over the worst. However, our leaders are emphasising the need for a slow end to lockdown as they prioritise the avoidance of a second wave of the disease.
Throughout our lockdown, we have seen the vast bulk of our businesses closed and most of our workers sent home. We have not been allowed to travel and are permitted only to leave our homes for essential shopping and exercise (close to where we live).
Now though, Ministers are beginning to reveal how Britain will enter our ‘new normal’ as restrictions are eased. This will begin with the reopening of parks and beaches. We are permitted to leave our house more than once a day provided we stick to social distancing. This distancing (keeping 2 metres apart) will continue indefinitely. Further moves to ease the lockdown are unlikely to be made until at least late May. Our current death toll stands at 28,131, with 182,000 confirmed cases. Ministers have warned that this number will need to fall significantly before major lockdown restrictions (such as reopening bars or going back to work in offices) can be lifted.
In summary then, the UK will remain in some form of lockdown for the foreseeable future.
There is increasing disquiet however regarding this reality. Those of us who live in the UK can see a marked difference in numbers outside over the last week, and some are beginning to question what is going on in the NHS. Videos and photos of medical staff engaged in rigorous dance routines have surfaced, and special hospitals built to accommodate coronavirus patients have been largely unused. Conspiracy theories are rife, and over the weekend, a gathering of protestors organised a “group hug” outside Scotland Yard in London to demand an end to the lockdown. Police ordered the protestors to go home and one man was arrested for refusing to do so.
It is both obvious and inevitable that locking a nation’s population behind closed doors will eventually lead to protest – people will naturally want to get on with their lives, and will distrust governments who tell them they can’t. It is also inevitable that our economy will suffer enormously and this could lead to greater suffering in the longer term.
The coronavirus story is far from told. A road of uncertainty is ahead, but people may take comfort from the fact that there now appears a light at the end of the tunnel. Plans are being made to get life back to some kind of normal, and that is what is needed at this time.
As a country, we must be patient but questioning. We cannot expect to return to the lives we knew overnight, in fact, it may be wiser if we never expect to return to them again. But we must continue to demand competence and responsibility from our leaders, and make certain they understand that we want out of this as quickly and safely as we can. Once again in other words, we want our country back.
Anne Marie Waters
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