Lockdown in Plymouth, UK

Jon is a collaborator of the Committee for Perth and one of the authors of our Get a Move On! report.

I had been in Christchurch since early February, and was looking forward to coming back to Perth to speak at a Committee for Perth event in late March. As it turned out, on 19 March I was watching out the window of a plane approaching London as it was getting ready for lockdown. I’ve flown in and out of Heathrow a lot, and this time it was really, eerily different: car parks empty, no immigration queues, baggage already waiting for me when I got to the belt only 10 minutes after getting off the plane. Having been in New Zealand for six weeks or so I’d had the luxury of being isolated from developments in Europe, and it was only when I saw Heathrow completely deserted I realised how serious things actually were.

London has been hit particularly badly, and the worst is predicted to come to the now-empty streets of Plymouth, where I live, in the coming days and weeks. COVID-19 has replaced Brexit as the only thing the news media talk about. Some continuity between the two stories is provided by Boris Johnson, whose carefully planned publicity stunt of ‘getting Brexit done’ has been replaced by the rather less planned but no less effective headline-grabbing activity of ending up in the ICU on oxygen.

Before he was admitted to hospital, Johnson had the unenviable task of putting the UK in lockdown. We’d been expecting it. The night after I arrived back, he told all pubs, cafes, restaurants, gyms and so on to close. The following Monday he addressed the nation to make everything much more official. 27 million people tuned in to witness the beginning of what has become Britain’s biggest ever peacetime act of looking after each other. ‘Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’.

We’re still allowed to leave our houses, but only: for work if it’s absolutely necessary (there is a list of ‘key workers’); for exercise once a day; and for essentials like food, but as little as possible. Other than people we live with, we’re not allowed to gather in groups of more than two, and even then we should keep two metres apart. By and large people are being good, although in Manchester people seem to be claiming partial exemption, with police having to break up 660 house parties there since lockdown began...

The new normal of quiet streets is certainly strange. To prevent the economy from totally imploding, and to help people keep food on the table and a roof over their heads, the government has cast a pretty impressive safety net – a Tory government announcing the rebirth of socialism. This is not to say there aren’t holes, and it’s terribly humbling to be able to work from home and continue to earn a wage while others find themselves worrying about where the next pay cheque is coming from, or working cruelly extended hours on the front line at hospitals and in care homes.

On the upside, we’ve had a rebirth of national community. Every Thursday at 8pm everyone stands at their front door and applauds key workers. This is a small but truly lovely gesture, both for what it symbolises and for the chance it provides for neighbours to wave and smile at each other, checking that everything is all right.

The ‘virtual pub’ is born and we’re catching up with friends we’ve not seen in ages.

And I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard that people are enjoying the opportunity to slow down a bit. To spend more quality time with the kids. To have time to sit, think, read, get all the DIY done, clean the car, tend to the garden. The other day, I cycled past one of my neighbours who was working in her garden. ‘Britain in Bloom is going to be difficult to judge this year,’ she said, waving across at everybody’s front lawns looking immaculate.

I realised at that moment how glad I was to be back. home. I’d forgotten while I was away, for a nation of whingers we’ve also got a pretty good sense of humour.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Committee For Perth acknowledges the traditional custodians throughout Western Australia and their continuing connection to the land, waters and community. We pay our respects to all members of the Aboriginal communities and their cultures; and to Elders both past and present.