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OP-ED: The end of hibernation in the UK

  • Published at 08:21 pm July 3rd, 2020
WEB_Boris
Reuters

Will the gamble pay off?

The last six months have been a living nightmare. 

The coronavirus has wreaked havoc the likes of which no one was prepared for, and unsurprisingly, has dominated the news. We have duly been shocked by the speed at which the disease has spread and the ever-increasing death toll; we have experienced lockdowns across the globe; economies have foundered; we have come to grips with being quarantined; and we have found ourselves adapting to and adopting new concepts such as social distancing in our day-to-day lives. Good news has become a rarity.

Over a week ago, I came across an article with a picture of a beach -- an overcrowded beach with sun-worshippers packed together like sardines, working on their tan, brightly coloured umbrellas jostling for space and hordes of people wading in the sea shoulder-to-shoulder. It brought a smile to my face.

“Those were the days,” I thought, like some of the older generation who constantly reminisce about bygone days. Holidays by the sea felt like a thing of the past, those good old pre-Covid days. But as I read the article, I realized with incredulity that the image was not from the past but from Bournemouth Beach in England, June 25, 2020.

Had I done a Rip Van Winkle and woken up in a future where Covid-19 had been eradicated? Had people found a vaccine and been immunized, something I was somehow not privy to? Or had summer madness possessed thousands of beach-goers, causing them to lose all sense of perspective?

Though the first (or even second) option would have been preferable, I had to go with answer number three. 

One can understand that the pandemic has put strains on people, both economic and mental: Job losses, forced separations from loved ones, and being cooped up indefinitely has driven people stir crazy. But even with a heatwave, going to the beach en masse, despite the risks which are still as prevalent, was hard to get my head around, even more so with children in tow.

Showing a metaphorical finger to the pandemic is not going to make it go away. Vikki Slade, the Liberal Democratic leader of Bournemouth Council, did not mince her words when she tweeted: “It doesn’t matter what we do these vile idiots will ignore rules.”

Talking about idiots ignoring rules, we can hardly be surprised at the public’s behaviour when Dominic Cummings, chief advisor to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has himself broken the lockdown rules, setting a precedent. 

As one would expect, being chief advisor, he had a hand in drawing up said rules. His subsequent flagrant disregard of the guidelines, nonsensical excuses, and lack of any apology to the British public, all the while enjoying the full backing of the increasingly discredited PM, hardly set a great example. Apparently, it was a case of “do as I say and not as I do.”

The incident in Bournemouth, or “major incident” as it has been categorized, came just two days after Boris Johnson declared that “our long hibernation is beginning to come to an end and life is returning to our streets and shops.” 

This was in reference to the changes in lockdown rules whereby shops, restaurants, pubs, salons, hotels, and other hospitality and entertainment services would be allowed to reopen from July 4, despite major misgivings from the scientific community. As for the two-metre distance -- that has been reduced to one metre which begs the question: “Why even bother?”

The UK has been the second-worst hit country globally, with the US currently securing the top spot, but has seen a steady fall in new cases during May and June. This has encouraged the government to take the decision to open up the economy. The announcement has undoubtedly brought a ray of hope to businesses and service providers across the country, many of whom are on the brink of collapse.

The PM has, however, cautioned the public that the easing of the lockdown was both conditional and reversible. It remains to be seen how practical it will be to undo the decision, given people’s disregard for the previous more stringent rules.

The media coverage following the decision and front-page headlines in many newspapers have been jubilant. The Daily Express had a photo of the PM raising a pint of beer with the headline “Cheers Boris! Here’s to a brighter Britain.” 

The Sun tabloid opted for a dozen glasses of beer and the caption “vast orders” with a “Brit’s joy as pubs reopen on Super Saturday” for added measure. The Metro went with “Get the beers in” and a photo of a woman with a tray with bottles of “Ice Breaker Pale Ale.” 

The Daily Telegraph and Guardian were more measured in their reaction with a “The hibernation is beginning to end, the bustle is back” and “PM hails end of hibernation -- but scientists urge caution” respectively as their headlines. 

It was baffling that, according to the headlines, the first port of call and priority for the British public appears to be the need to patronize local pubs and get a pint of beer. Unsurprisingly, this has given the police in England cause for concern, and they have taken the decision to have extra security measures and deploy additional officers on Saturday when pubs reopen.

With lockdown rules being eased in the UK, the fear is that this could trigger a new surge in infection rates similar to the experiences of Germany and Switzerland. The government is taking a calculated risk pitting the lives of the vulnerable against the need to restart the economy and, therefore, the needs of the many. Time can only tell whether this gamble will pay off or not. 

Nadia Kabir Barb is a writer, journalist, and author of the short story collection Truth or Dare.

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