Editor’s Note: We are publishing personal essays from CNN’s global staff as they live and cover the story of Covid-19. Nick Paton Walsh is CNN’s International Security Editor, based in London.
The days are meant to get longer now. Even if many Britons wish they would not.
Here, we had expected chaos at the end of 2020, but hoped that it would be self-inflicted – from the nationalistic roll of the dice at the end of the Brexit transition period, when new trading rules kick in as the UK begins a new relationship with the EU.
But not this chaos from nature, cutting the UK off from the rest of the world with such pace and fear. Countries our government used to advise us not to travel to now say we’re not welcome anyway. Haulage trucks line up at Dover, no longer practicing for an altogether more predictable and avoidable Brexit drama. Shop shelves are emptying, while queues form outside supermarkets, as if the government’s “do not panic” mantra has now become the loudest alarm bell.
Each lockdown has felt different. The first gave central London a ghostly and surreal new sheen amid the sirens. The second was barely noticeable, as businesses made labored justifications as to why they could stay open. The third, so far, is a little more desperate. Masks are more commonly seen outdoors. We simply do not know when it will end.
The South Bank has mostly lone runners on walkways that were packed just two weeks ago. Still, on the first day of this new lockdown, called Tier 4, I ran past a spiced cider stall that was open, and a photo shoot happening under the London Eye. You are allowed to work, after all, however you define that.
In Britain, concluding that the government has no idea what it’s doing is no longer the outlier choice of the conspiracy theorist, but an evidence-based assessment. Again and again, a decision point arrives for the Johnson administration, and a path is taken. It is criticized as wildly illogical or risky, even in the pandering tabloid press. And then it is hurriedly reversed – normally at the very last moment possible.
Johnson first downplayed COVID-19, then acted late to suppress it, caught it, was hospitalized by it, got sympathetic poll numbers from it. Then he failed to test and trace for it, or even test enough for it, and said it would go away by Christmas. Then he dragged the country through a lockdown he had also said earlier would be devastating and unnecessary, and then finally canceled a Christmas he had said days before only the inhumane would call off.
Downing Street press conferences yawn with practiced uncertainty and platitudes. Exhausted scientific advisers seem to struggle to keep up with nature, now on a year-long hedonistic rip across humanity. And their advice is, it seems, only selectively applied by a stricken prime minister with increasingly tousled hair that is unable to keep up with emulating the chaos he’s presiding over.
The UK’s daily coronavirus case numbers have become numbingly distant and huge. But the ubiquity they spell for this virus means nearly everyone knows someone it has killed – or has friends infected in this new wave, or discovers suddenly how much more prevalent in their street it is now than they thought. I am still struck by the ICU we visited Blackburn in October, which lost a third of its 21 patients the weekend before our arrival. One of those we interviewed later died. They had seemed on the mend.
In most households or extended families, there is the occasional ripple of dissent among those who don’t “believe it.” Or who think the cure is worse (on the economy) than the disease. Or that Saturday’s lockdown order to shut down the capital and South East from the rest of the country is best responded to by crowding onto the last trains out of London, as we saw inexplicably this weekend. We seem sometimes desperate to satisfy our selfish, immediate needs, certain those inconsiderate steps won’t actually bring the virus closer to invading that same personal world.
“It would be nice if the UK could excel in just one thing,” a friend in government joked to me months ago. That had for a brief moment been the vaccines – the Pfizer-BioNTech injection first approved and rolled out by the UK, and perhaps other cheaper doses rolled out in the millions globally if the Oxford-AstraZeneca version is approved too. But now we fear our most consequential export may instead be a variant of the virus that could prolong the pandemic.
It’s quite possible that the new coronavirus variant VUI2020/12/1 is already in many other countries, and the UK’s formidable genetic sequencing industry simply found it first. That would make the UK almost an anti-China, sensibly over-warning the rest of the world of the risk of this new variant.
But 2020 has not left Boris Johnson with any authority chips to play. His warning was not accompanied by hard-won gravity earned by months of responsible behavior. Instead, the world took the UK seriously as we were, for the first time, not divided or unsure about something. Even Boris Johnson had to pay attention to it.
What this new clarity has not given us – as the holidays settle like unwelcome, deep new snow – is any certainty as to when the simmering panic, or the current lockdown, or these short, dark days will end.