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OP-ED: A return to normality? Not quite

  • Published at 04:41 am April 23rd, 2021
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We will not suddenly discard our face masks, or ignore social distancing dictates

The first stage of the easing of Covid-related restrictions began here in the UK last Monday. Non-essential shops, gyms, hairdressers, and pubs and restaurants serving food and drink outside, have finally re-opened for the first time since December.  

There are still two further stages to go in the government’s planned “roadmap” out of the lockdown.  If all goes well, on May 17, cafes and bars will be able to serve food indoors and theatres and cinemas will re-open for public performances. Then on June 21, all remaining restrictions on our freedom to meet who we want and to go where we want will be completely removed. Normal life will return once more to the UK.

But will it?  

At the start of 2020, the only people we Brits ever saw wearing a face mask were tourists from Japan and China. These we tended to view with a mixture of curiosity and silent suspicion. The usual question on most people’s minds was: “What do they think they are going to catch from us?” 

Few at the time realized that it was usually the other way round, and that the wearer of the mask was trying to protect us from whatever cold or minor infection they may have been suffering from.  Now on the streets and in the supermarkets up and down the UK, it is very rare indeed to see anyone without a mask. 

And, we also seem to have embraced the rationale of those East Asian visitors, by wearing it not so much for the protection of ourselves, but for others. This mask-wearing habit is not going to go away when the final restrictions are lifted in June. It has become too ingrained in the British mind-set.

When the pubs and shops reopened last week, there was the inevitable surge of thoughtless drinkers and shoppers eager to get their hands on a cold beer or a bargain after so many months of being denied. As always, the television news and national newspapers focused on the few who ignored the social distancing guidelines and barged their way to the front of the line.  

But for the vast majority of people, it was business as usual (or business as not usual depending on your point of view). Most were happy to remain patiently in the queue, keeping their distance, and wearing their face coverings. Once again, so conditioned have we become to obediently following the rules, that it is second nature to us now.  

Last Sunday, some lucky football fans were allowed for the first time this year to attend the FA Cup semi-final match between Leicester City and Southampton at Wembley. The stadium has a capacity of 90,000, but on match-day only 4,000 were admitted. Those who were disappointed not to get tickets didn’t seem that disappointed. Interviewed on radio before the match, some felt that it was too soon for a large -- albeit socially distanced -- crowd to be gathering.  

Many were quite content to continue to watch games on television until more of the vaccine had been rolled out or they themselves had been vaccinated. 

One of the biggest consequences of the pandemic has been the number of people who would normally travel to work, now working from home (WFH). Some still long for the time when they can return to the office and enjoy a chat around the water cooler or a lunchtime sandwich and coffee in the park with colleagues. 

But many more it seems are less keen to return to their old ways of working. The prospect of a long -- and often very expensive -- commute to the office, of having to dress properly for meetings and returning to the tedium of the office politics, seem singularly less attractive when compared to the benefits of WFH with all of its domestic comforts and casual clothes close to hand. Indeed, many employers are now also seeing the advantages of home working and the massive savings that can be made by not renting and heating costly city-centre office spaces.

So, on many fronts, despite the lifting of the final sanctions on our freedoms and movements this summer, many of us in Britain will not want to go to back immediately to our pre-pandemic way of life. On June 21, we will not suddenly discard our face masks, ignore the social distancing dictates, forget our wariness of large crowds, or rush to restart to our daily commute.  

The return to normality, if it ever completely returns, will be a slow and gradual process. The rules and guidelines that we have all become so accustomed to and have followed so assiduously over these past many months, are too deeply rooted in the British psyche now for it to be otherwise.

Kit Fenwick is a historian and freelance writer.

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