26 September, London, UK

Socially distanced theatre-going
By Ian Burns

It is not quite the best of times and the worst of times, but that phrase is uppermost in my mind this morning. London is bright, blue-skied, and crispy cold. Yet, the newspapers are full of foreboding and warning. There is plenty to read about a second COVID wave. This suggestion bothers me. In my mind, we are still in the initial wave and it is clear that as a nation, we have dealt with it badly.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose stock is rising as the Prime Minister’s plummets, has told the House of Commons that “we must learn to live with it, and live without fear”. According to the Financial Times, Conservative MPs “particularly welcomed” that message. Well, it seems to me that everyone is ‘living with it’ and that most of the fears come from the government’s own messaging.

Fear is generated by the unknown and by uncertainty about what is to come. It is why it is a little scary entering an empty house, or moving into a dark tunnel. This government has waxed and waned with its approach to restrictions which gives people an uncomfortable sense that now things are being tightened again.  That clearly does not suit a Brexit-focused leadership that needs the economy to be braced for that particular challenge ahead.  It seems that perhaps the government knows something we do not. And it is not good!

Nonetheless, today feels properly autumnal, and welcome, although the shirt-sleeved weather that persisted through last weekend and into this week has been much appreciated. Strange distortions of the calendar mean that the county cricket season is about to start its final day at Lord’s and will be greeted by near-perfect conditions.

The BBC tells us that this weekend more than a quarter of the UK’s population is to be placed under stricter rules than the general advice. Households are being banned from meeting in one another’s homes and gardens. Northern cities and towns are particularly affected, but London has been moved up the list of places under review. What seems to be a poorly thought out ‘curfew’ plan to get people to leave pubs and restaurants by 10pm is simply generating crowds at bus stops and tube entrances, and a population inclined to raid the ‘off-trade’ supermarket provisions to party on, now that the ‘on-trade’ licensed premises are shutting early. Parks, car parks, school playgrounds and homes are seeing impromptu parties. Surely not what is intended. We understand our R rate – reproduction ratio COVID infection – is between 1.2 and 1.5. Ministers seem to want to blame the public, forgetting that contempt for complying with regulations started with the Prime Minister’s own ‘Special Advisor’ and his Durham foray in the spring.

Universities seem to be a new and material concern. Virus break outs in universities like Glasgow are leading to strict curbs on students, many of whom have just arrived. This is their first university experience and they are being told not to attend pubs, not to socialise, and to stay in their university accommodation with people they have yet to get to know and to study online. Fees are unchanged. This looks unsustainable.

Last academic year, the second of my children completed his university journey. I have just the one left in university now and she is graduating this year. That means that she has just passed the age of 21. It should have been a celebration. Our family were intending to meet near her home in Manchester and to celebrate hard with her and her friends. The ‘rule of six’ ended that, but it would probably have been difficult anyway to enjoy celebrating in the uninhibited way 21sts should be acknowledged. If the virus keeps society tied and constrained, she may not get to celebrate her graduation either. We did at least manage a dinner together and a lovely morning walk, brunch and reminisce before she jumped back on a train from Euston this week.

I wonder what her student cohort makes of our leadership. She is a Politics student and allows me access to Gen Z opinion forming. Her generation will have it tough. There is plenty of evidence that we are borrowing from them to fund our current responses, even when we were already loading millennials and Zers with large student debts and an inaccessible property market. How do they feel when they look at my generation, which seemed to have more access to opportunity and more freedoms in the late ‘70’s and through the ‘80’s?

However ominous things may seem, we are ‘living with it’ and trying to normalise. I have seen some theatre (thank you, The Bridge) and visited a cinema, where my son and I had the place to ourselves to see ‘Tenet’. And I was able to eat out to celebrate with my daughter. I am living without fear, and I think that is more typical of the people I know than living fearfully. However, we are living in frustration – at inconsistent advice, poorly conveyed interpretations of ‘the science’, and imagining what a no-vaccine, COVID UK and world will mean to our ambitions for all of our tomorrows.