There are loads of memes right now in which people in some way comment or complain about how this was not what they wanted in an apocalypse. There are no zombie hordes, no Max-Max style dress code, just people in pyjamas watching Netflix. Nevertheless, Britain right now is facing one of the most difficult times it has seen since the Blitz, with very real concerns the NHS will simply not be able to manage the overall caseload if the COVID-19 virus is not in some way curtailed. In Newcastle, thankfully, the total number of cases so far as has been fairly low, especially when compared to London. That is not to say there have not been some changes over the past few weeks.
Like many in Britain, and I expect many around the world, in January and February I was aware of the news from China, and was concerned in a generalised way but also felt it was a long way off. It was really in March that things began to get more serious in the UK. While the situation in Europe was certainly developing rapidly, it was in London that the first real sense of a problem began to appear. In Newcastle, my colleagues at university and I were aware there was ‘something going on’, but honestly we felt it would probably not get that bad. I was due to go down to London the afternoon of 15 March to begin a week-long effort in two archives there, and early in the month, I was not too worried about my trip.
A week later, it was clear something was definitely up, though oddly enough, not officially. The British government had not said much about what they intended to do so, and neither had my university, but in the news, there were a lot of alarm bells over the number of COVID cases. Some of my colleagues who teach were wondering whether we should move to an on-line model, but as yet there was no clear sense of direction from the university. On the 11th, I contacted my supervisors to ask their thoughts on my travel plans, and got some helpful input, but still no official statement. I think, perhaps, that lack of official guidance will be one of the big legacies of this whole COVID experience in Britain, possibly around the world. In the early stages of it, there was so little clarity from those in authority that many people really weren’t sure what to think or do. Might anything have changed if there had been more aggressive action sooner? Historians of future times will no doubt speculate, but I doubt there will be any clear answers for them any more than there are for us.
The afternoon of the 12th was the day the COVID situation became more real to me. Academic conferences were being cancelled, and a friend who was due to go to a conference in Germany the following week was waiting for that to get cancelled. He was rightly concerned about the travel risks as well as being at a large international gathering, given how quickly things were changing on the Continent. My colleagues and I had a light-hearted conversation about whether we were ready to retreat to our flats in the event of a crisis, though there was a touch of semi-serious thought in it, too. I got home a little early, and after quickly scanning the news, I ran out to my local shop for a few things. I don’t remember what it was in the news that made me think it was important, and I don’t think it was ‘panic buying’, but the thought was increasingly on my mind that some things might be in increasingly short supply. Perhaps it was silly, but what really motivated me to go was the thought I didn’t want to run out of gin because my wife and I had recently become rather fond of having a gin fizz in the evenings. I did notice, though, that my mind was more agitated than usual as I went through the shop. I got the gin, more tonic water, lemon squash, and then also found myself grabbing soup, tinned beans, bread, jelly babies, and, yes, a pack of toilet roll, before heading to the till. None of it was stuff we don’t regularly eat, and none of it was purchased in any ridiculous quantity, but it was still more of a ‘just in case’ mindset than I was used to.
Friday the 13th (in a wonderfully apt moment of timing) was the day everything changed. The university officially announced all travel, domestic and international, was curtailed unless it was absolutely essential, and they were going to move to online delivery after the 27th of March but encouraged people to work from home as much as possible before then. That date of the 27th proved to be ridiculously optimistic. As of today, the 27th of March, my university is going to ‘red’ lockdown after 17.00, which means all buildings except the residence halls and minimal food service for the still-resident students are shut, locked, and completely inaccessible to everyone except security personnel. Likewise, in that same time frame, the UK went from asking people to do social distancing, to shutting down pubs and gyms, to a full lockdown with police enforcement. On the plus side, I got to here the Prime Minister use the phrase ‘squash the sombrero’ in a live broadcast, which is not something I thought I would ever hear.
I have also noted some significant changes in the shops during my few trips out over the same period. On the 12th, there was a noticeable shortage of some ready-made tinned goods, and some of the dry pasta, but otherwise, everything was about as normal. By the 16th, it was looking grimmer, though the staff were struggling on brilliantly, trying to keep the shelves stocked despite people panic-buying loo-roll like it was the only thing between them and total destruction. The dry pasta was gone, as were most of the Bolognese options and sliced bread, the rice was running low, but there was a lot of fresh produce still, a few eggs, and some cheese. Shoplifting had also apparently become a much bigger problem. Whilst I was in the queue, a man was stopped with a bottle of some sort of alcohol and a packet of what looked like crab salad in his jacket, and someone else apparently grabbed a packet of cheese from a customer who had paid for it but not yet got it bagged up yet. On the 19th, I ran up to campus to get a few more things from my office before the university shut down completely and discovered that while the big shops near me were looking thin, the CoOp Foods in the Student Union was still pretty well-stocked and very low in traffic, which was encouraging. I came home with some bread and Nutella because one must have priorities after all.
I had been trying to practice social distancing during the past week, but I decided my work-at-home space would really benefit from a better chair, and so on the 21st, I went out to a local second-hand furniture shop to see what I could find. I found something I liked, but because I don’t own a car, I asked them to deliver it, and they scheduled it for Tuesday, the 24th. Alas. On the evening of the 23rd, Boris Johnson gave what may be the most-watched television event in the history of the United Kingdom, if you factor in not just the official numbers but the number of people streaming it. Everything except shops with essential goods was to be closed. Strict new lockdown rules were in place, and the police had the power to enforce them with fines and even arrests. I knew we were a bit low on a few supplies, so to try and honour the PM’s directive, I looked into getting a home delivery set up. That was a good laugh. On the 23rd of March, Morrison’s was booking for mid-April, and ASDA was only slightly better. I looked at Amazon and found that for some things like toilet roll, I could get some delivered by early May. So, despite the order, I opted to go out on the morning of the 24th, with the hope I could abide by the PM’s guidance and shop as little as possible, but get that shopping done now. Alas, like Mother Hubbard, I found many parts of the cupboard bare. Further, at the Morrison’s, social distancing was being strictly enforced. Markers were on the floor showing where people were to queue at the till, and how far back they were to stand, and there was a monitor fiercely patrolling up and down to make sure customers followed the rules, as well as a much larger security presence. They had not yet installed the Perspex barriers I understand are meant to shield the clerks from the customers, but I expect if I were go to today, they would be there. In the end, Morrison’s did still have a reasonable selection of fresh produce to pick from, and I was lucky that my local Wilko did have some toilet roll, as well as a few other medical supplies I was seeking after my wife took a bit of a tumble.
So where does that leave us today? Out the window of my flat, the foot traffic is not horribly reduced from before the PM’s announcement, but I do live in a pretty quiet area, and so we didn’t see a lot of people before that, except when parents were dropping off or picking up children from the school, now closed until further notice. I haven’t left the flat since the morning of Tuesday the 24th, and so far I don’t feel all that ‘shut-in’. I am a little concerned about what might happen the next time we do need supplies, as the local shops had typically been low on vegetarian options even without the COVID issues, so my cooking choices might get somewhat limited as we run out of freezer supplies. I am noticing, too, that is harder to find the focus to work on my research right now, but it seems a lot of grad students on the chat forums the uni set up are having the same issues. I think that’s perfectly natural in such a moment of transition as this, for all of us. As the headlines report that Prince Charles, and now both Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock all have COVID-19 while the number of cases and deaths skyrocket, Britain is facing a mounting set of challenges, indeed as the whole world is. It’s hard to focus on history when the present is in such turmoil, but perhaps there is some hope in history, too. A remarkable prescient novel by Daniel Defoe called A Journal of the Plague Year, details his thoughts on what the plague of 1665-6 in London was like. Granted, it is a novel, not a historical record, but it is remarkably accurate in how it echoes what is going on around us today, from the shutting down of public entertainments to the isolation of the ill to the economic issues such diseases bring. The hopeful bit, noted by both Defoe and the historical record, is that London and Britain did recover from the plague, and the Great Fire afterwards, and that new opportunities and new possibilities presented themselves after that round of apocalyptic devastation. There is every reason to think that will be true again, in 2020, 2021 and the years beyond. It’s a cheery thought for me as I follow governmental guidance and stay firmly at home, in Newcastle.