Take yourself back exactly two years, to the now unrecognisable landscape of February 2020. The novel Coronavirus, having only recently been given the name Covid-19, was making serious inroads in China but had yet to feature any higher up the agenda in the UK than a mid-page ‘global news’ bullet point on the BBC News website. A few short weeks later, around the time that Tom Hanks and Mikel Arteta succumbed to the virus on the very same day, we realised the scale of the change that was upon us. But humans, adaptable species that we are, took it largely in our stride. No sooner had lockdown restrictions been announced than we began to look ahead to the day they were lifted. Twitter timelines and newspaper inches prophesied the golden day ahead of us when regulations were dropped and Covid was given the boot once and for all.
Twenty four long months later, that day is almost upon us. On Monday, all Covid-19 restrictions in England are to be formally abolished, a full month ahead of schedule. The days of meeting friends in parks, spaced out in a circle six feet apart from one another like some satanic ritual, are behind us: from Monday we can hold our business meetings and birthday parties in a Mini Cooper if we wish, without so much as a window cracked for ventilation. We will be able to stroll into a supermarket, mouths and noses uncovered, and disperse whatever collection of pathogens we have managed to accumulate onto the fresh goods and fellow shoppers. There will be parties in the street – not measly Downing Street parties, proper parties – and a golden age of freewheeling optimism will begin in earnest without a lateral flow test in sight.
Except something about Freedom Monday seems to be missing. The jubilation we imagined an end to restrictions would bring seems to have been lost somewhere over the past two years. The lack of press coverage has been notable: this week’s national papers have found close to no space for the end of the pandemic, instead focusing on potential war in Ukraine, alleged Royal misconduct, and some above-average wind in Devon. More bizarrely, the British public also seem to have lost their appetite for an end to draconian restrictions. A few comments were made in Field HQ this week regarding the lifting of restrictions, but the topic earnt a much smaller share of conversation time than PSG versus Real Madrid, or whether the voice behind the National Lottery is the same as the bloke who reads out the scores on Strictly.
There are two analyses as to why the end of Covid-19 feels so underwhelming. Most obviously, we have seen the ‘end’ of Covid a few times now: when the pubs and hairdressers reopened in July 2020, or when the regional tiers were dropped, or when people realised that Omicron is relatively more mild in December. More broadly, though, is the sense that the ending of the rules very much depends on how you, personally, interpret the rules. Amongst any group of sensible people, you will find those who feel that ending restrictions overnight is premature and irresponsible, that abandoning masks and social distancing is catnip for any incubating future variants, and that the Prime Minister has rushed through these changes as just one of many populist offerings to shore up his support within the 1922 Committee. Equally, there are those who feel that an abandonment of restrictions is long overdue. If we have a milder variant, a highly effective vaccine which can be topped up at any time, and some degree of recent immunity for almost everyone, then why not take steps to restore our old way of life? If not now, then when?
The truth is that it has been a long time since the entire nation has toed any one particular line when it comes to Covid regulations. Those of a certain generation love a Blitz metaphor to contextualise lockdown, but when Churchill’s War Office warned the country to turn the lights off at night and hot-foot it down into the cellar if you hear any faint whistling sounds, the monoculture of the radio and the national press ensured that the rules were more or less followed uniformly. With Covid, we have seen the grip of authority weaken gradually over the course of two years. Scotland and Wales grabbed their ball and went home fairly early on in the piece, deciding that they would rather set their own restrictions. England has been left to its own devices, and every miniscule change in Covid policy has caused different factions to peel away from the consensus and set their own rules.
We now live in a country with very little common culture: Spotify and Netflix have left us to make our own choices in the music we listen to and the television we watch. The internet has done the same for the news we consume. The interpretation of Covid rules has, unsurprisingly, been very different for Guardian readers and Telegraph readers, and wildly different once again for those who eschew national outlets in favour of extremist blogs. Unlike in the 1940s, you can now refuse to go near any mainstream media, insisting that the BBC is either a far left or far right conspiracy, and still consume enough online content to give yourself the impression that you are well-informed. Number 10 has done nothing to try and bring people back into the tent. Partygate has further alienated people from the Government and the NHS’s messaging, but in truth the rules began to slip from being rigid, legally enforceable mandates to mere suggestions the minute Dominic Cummings squinted at his phone and plugged ‘Barnard Castle’ into Maps.
For some, the removal of restrictions on Monday will bring about a change in behaviour. In truth, though, most of us have long since made up our minds about what risks we are happy to take. Covid-19 has, obviously, not ended: the only thing which will disappear on Monday are the rules set by the Government, which only a handful of people in the country are still even aware of, let alone follow, including the Government itself. For most of us, the only Covid rules that matter are the ones we make for ourselves; and on Monday, just like every other day, we’ll continue to make them up as we go along.