First day of official lockdown
By Charles Haviland
Slight nagging anxieties creep into my slumber and I awake before my alarm rings. I will go to the office because BBC news journalists are deemed essential workers. I leave my home in mid-morning for a late shift. Footfall on underground trains is far reduced but there are still rather too many people for comfort. I have put on a mask for the journey and huddle into the front corner of the train, looking at the wall, as far as possible from anyone else. Everyone seems aware of the need to keep – ideally – two metres apart.
At Oxford Circus, Transport for London has put up big signs with graphics telling us to keep our distance. Fitzrovia and Marylebone are sunny. Walking the streets is the art of navigating a clear passage sufficiently far from everyone else. People cooperate, at times muttering a very British “sorry!” if they feel they haven’t left you enough space. The fine buildings of Langham Place – All Souls Church, Old Broadcasting House – stand proud, almost untroubled by people.
Inside New Broadcasting House, I wonder if the friendly security guards are socially distanced enough. In my workplace, its Newsroom, in my team at least we are spaced out. We sit with an empty desk between any two occupied seats – made easier because a portion of us are now working from home, in some cases because of their own or a family member’s health condition. We have no idea when we will see them next.
A colleague, Raimo, walks in, his arms full of cartons and cartons of skimmed milk. “Anyone want some?” Café Nero, the branch in the courtyard upstairs, is closing for the lockdown and told him that if he wanted one pint he’d have to take twenty. “You working in the dairy today?” laughs another friend. There are more quips about food. “The Langham’s only doing takeaways now!” says Jonathan. (That’s the extremely posh hotel across the road.) Yesterday he revealed that one of his local shops had run out of hen’s eggs (panic-buying) but was selling quail’s eggs, so he made an omelette of them.
We work. We write the World Service news and broadcast news bulletins. About ninety percent of the subject matter is virus news. It is grim, relentless, savage. I am especially troubled today by news of the spiralling crisis in New York City, the nationwide lockdown in India, and the awful toll in Spain – all places where I have beloved friends. How will Indians get food? How will they earn money? How will hospitals in NYC and Madrid cope?
My afternoon lunchbreak must be spent on a brisk walk as under the new lockdown we are still allowed to exercise. It is the good fortune of Broadcasting House to be within fifteen minutes of Regents Park which is reached via Portland Place, wide yet quiet. Today it is sun-drenched, ghostly. Overnight one major thing has changed. For many years there have been brave Falun Gong protestors demonstrating, sometimes meditating, opposite the Chinese Embassy. Now they are gone.
Keeping at least two metres from any other person is easy, though I avoid the building site where workers are clustered together, the air filled with dust particles and reeking of solder. At one point two young women are walking towards me, occupying the width of the pavement. From a distance I gesticulate and they move to one side with good humour. It is the most beautiful imaginable spring day, sunny, mild, the air gentle. The park is filled with daffodils and cherry blossom. It is much less busy yet far from deserted. I wonder if the coots, the grebes, the geese on the big lake have noticed the downturn. People are there only in ones and twos as they should be. I only spot one person who is not on the move and is sunbathing. The winter mud has at last dried and it is beautiful to leave the path – indeed necessary when most runners approach. A young couple are jogging very slowly, seemingly to ensure they are seen to be exercising. A man leads five small dogs – mainly poodles – walking as slowly as can be.
Back at the office the “dance” of keeping two metres apart continues. “It’s like the opposite of Twister, isn’t it?” jokes Robert, a colleague with a wonderful sense of humour. He distributes oranges for the sake of our Vitamin C intake. We keep doing our best on “social distancing”, though at one point the studio managers ask me to keep out of their studio when I’m supposed to be in it. We are relieved when a colleague who suddenly went home earlier, feeling feverish, gets in touch to say he has no temperature and is fine.
It is night when I head for home. By Warren Street station, six or seven people, probably homeless, are gathered much too close together. But what comfort can they find apart from each other? They are talking not in English but in … which eastern European language? I can’t get close enough to tell.