A soft lockdown

An almost empty shopping street with a mostly red-brick pavement. A Foot Locker shop is prominent near the foreground, with a Russell & Bromley shoe shop behind it.
Clarence Street, Kingston, 4pm Monday (23rd March)

So, last night Boris Johnson went on national TV (programmes were interrupted or rescheduled on at least two channels) and announced that the British public was being ‘instructed’ to stay at home other than for buying groceries, seeing to medical needs, caring responsibilities and for a bit of exercise, and that all shops other than those selling food and pharmaceuticals (in particular, clothing and electronics) have to close. This followed an outrage on social media at the spectacle of large numbers of people thronging parks such as Richmond Park in London, eating and drinking ‘takeaway’ food at picnic tables or just outside a cafe, and heading out to holiday homes and beauty spots in Wales and to the coast, following Johnson’s decision to order pubs and clubs to close and cafes and restaurants to stop allowing people to eat in last Friday and to encourage people to stay at home if possible. On Monday morning, with the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, having demanded that people stay off the roads unless they are “key workers”, and having reduced bus and Tube services, images circulated on social media of packed Tubes and the traffic news reporter on BBC London proclaimed that the roads were busy and “they can’t all be key workers”.

I have the impression that this decision was as much a reaction to the social media clamour over those scenes than to the facts. It was only last Friday, after all, that most of the schools finally closed (after mounting public calls) to other than children whose parents are deemed “key workers”. I was in Kingston town centre yesterday (Monday) afternoon and the place was almost deserted. All but a handful of shops in the Bentall’s centre were closed: Smith’s, an opticians, Boots and (strangely) a couple of jewellers were still open, but the department store, the Apple Store and all the food outlets had shut. Outside, most of the shops were also closed and those that were not were going to be closed from today anyway, often in response to staff protests about having to deal with bosses and customers who were oblivious to their health, especially last Saturday. The crowding on public transport, widely complained of by those forced to endure it as well as by the Twitter mob who had the privilege of being able to work from home, happened because people still have to travel to work because not every job in fact can be done from home.

The definition of “key worker” seems to have expanded somewhat: last week I saw a list that included delivery drivers. Usually, it refers to particular professions which are often underpaid but socially necessary, such as teachers, social workers and nurses — professions that traditionally are often if not usually the domain of women. We hear the phrase in such contexts as “key workers cannot afford to live in St Albans because of the sky-high house prices”. But as people are being encouraged, and now forced, to buy anything except food and medicines online, delivery drivers actually need to work as well. Many bosses have resisted calls to close shops and pay workers for the time they will not be able to work; construction sites have carried on working (Sadiq Khan claims he argued for them to be included in the ‘lockdown’, but was overruled). If there is no guarantee of being able to pay the bills without working, people have to work.

The ‘lockdown’ hardly merits the name, anyway. A friend whose daughter has been in a number of secure or locked mental health units wrote on Facebook that her daughter told her, “a lockdown is when they lock all your doors and won’t even let you into the garden, like they do in all places [I’ve] been”. The term originates in prisons, to my knowledge. This does not approach the degree of restriction that people in Italy or Spain have to put up with, where people can only go out alone for groceries or medicine, or to walk their dog (but not take their children for a walk), or to do a protected job (which they have to be able to prove); they are not even allowed to use shared areas of housing blocks. A curious omission from the Monday announcement, and from the media coverage of it, is any reference to the legal basis for the demands: what Act of Parliament or court order justifies it? Last I heard, a speech by the prime minister does not constitute a change in the law. In Kingston today, where I cycled (alone) to get some groceries, there were no police to be seen and only one shop had a queue, although a picture taken in St John’s Wood showed a queue outside a food shop with police alongside them “scrutinising people’s behaviours” from the safety of a van. (This echoes the fears that friends have expressed, that policing of the lockdown will target minorities and ignore the white suburbs, like Kingston.) I found no cafes open, but despite Johnson’s demand that electronics and clothes shops close, a branch of M&S, which has a food hall but the other five sixths of its floor space is taken up by clothing, was open, including the clothing sections. I did not visit Sainsbury’s or Tesco, which sell electronics as well. (John Lewis, which sells clothing and electronics, was closed but Waitrose, the food division, was open.)

Despite the threat of tougher actions if the terms of the ‘lockdown’ are not adhered to, I do not expect Johnson to make good on his claims. It would require the government to guarantee people’s social security — their homes and access to food — while they are unable to work, and it is simply not in his or his party’s ideological DNA to do so. Like Donald Trump, they have been far more concerned to keep the economy going and to ensure that as many people as possible have jobs to go back to after the outbreak is over. With all the talk of the government doing “whatever it takes” to protect businesses and jobs, they have not spelled out where the money for any of this will come from; indeed, businesses have been given a “VAT holiday” and the tightening up of the rules on who can be considered self-employed (which also closes a tax loophole) has been delayed for a year. For what I suspect is the same reason, they have not tested anyone who shows no symptoms of the virus nor traced the contacts of those who tested positive (of the few who were tested, which has only been done in hospital, never in the community). They have also taken over the franchised railway services in order to protect the franchisees, a move some have interpreted as re-nationalising the system but is quite the opposite.

Their intention appears to be to be seen talking about comprehensive measures to help people through the pandemic, but only to do what does not cost money, while blaming the public for the consequences. There is no effective response to this crisis that will not cost money and is compatible with the low-tax, laissez-faire libertarian ideology which has been dominant in this country for the past four decades, much less with the disdain for expert authority that has been cultivated by the British popular press for about the same time. When people are conditioned to believe that “evidence they don’t like is a myth invented by the metropolitan elite”, it should come as no surprise that when the government suddenly appeals to expert opinion to try to persuade the public to change their behaviour, it falls on deaf ears.

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