With Britain’s shambolic government locking down London at the last minute, the prospect of Christmas – which had been something to hold on to at the end of a dreary, isolating and distressing year – went up in smoke.
“The air feels different,” said my boyfriend as we went for a walk on Sunday, one of maybe five times we left the house in the past week. “It feels like we’ve been left behind on a sinking ship.”
The day before, UK prime minister Boris Johnson did exactly what just three days before he’d said he wouldn’t do: cancel Christmas. Of course, Christmas isn’t really something that can be “cancelled”; it’s not a concert or a school prize-giving, and Covid-19 has no concept of days, let alone holidays. But in searching for other ways to describe how this new lockdown feels, after months of lockdowns and false hopes, I came up short.
The past couple months have been up and down. We spent November in lockdown, which was bearable, and at the time felt necessary. Cases fell by 30% that month, but were still relatively high after lockdown, and health secretary Matt Hancock said the country could not “take our foot off the pedal just yet”. But as is its style, the Conservative government prioritised the economy above all, and shoppers were allowed to flood the streets ahead of Christmas as shops, bars and restaurants reopened anyway. Unsurprisingly, cases surged again and, barely two weeks later, London was placed in “Tier 3” – essentially a return to November’s lockdown.
Now shut back inside, we had one glimmer of hope on the horizon: the promised relaxation of rules for five days over Christmas. For New Zealanders in London, Christmas is already a complicated affair; most of us can’t spend it with family, and orphans’ Friendmases are a common way to gather instead. But regardless of how one spends it, it’s often a burst of brightness during London’s bleak winter months. For almost three months now, we haven’t been allowed to socialise with friends inside, and until last weekend, we were anticipating that we could finally do so for Christmas. In the face of continually rising cases, everyone knew it wasn’t the safest idea, but it was something to hold onto after back-to-back lockdowns at the end of a dreary, isolating and distressing year.
But on Saturday, Boris cancelled the Christmas relaxation period with four days’ notice. We were now in “Tier 4”, which requires us to stay at home indefinitely from midnight Sunday. Naturally, London train stations were crowded with passengers trying to get home before the new rules. Everything felt upside down: those that had got out of London already had technically done so illegally (the Christmas relaxation period would have allowed travel from December 23), but now they were the lucky ones. People trying to return home on Saturday were slammed for “irresponsible behaviour” by Hancock, as though his government has been the portrait of responsibility; when Boris Johnson’s most senior aide broke lockdown in April, the PM said he “acted responsibly, legally and with integrity”.
My boyfriend and I were due to visit his parents in Edinburgh. I was nervous and excited. I’d never been to Scotland before, and it was going to be the closest thing I would have had to a family gathering since I’d left New Zealand. I’d spent a couple weeks buying his parents Christmas presents, which are now stacked and wrapped on my desk. Now, Christmas is likely to just be him, me and his one remaining housemate, the others already out of London.
I cannot argue with rising infections, and by no means wish for fewer restrictions. But it’s hard to explain just how hopeless the Christmas reversal feels. Perhaps the timing is just unfortunate – Christmas happens to be in winter in the northern hemisphere, during which flus and colds are in high circulation anyway, and perhaps the UK’s second wave of Covid-19 just so happened to crest in December. But it didn’t have to. The government’s response to the pandemic has been shockingly negligent, marked by a series of brash, irresponsible decisions that prioritised the economy over human life. When cases rise and panic sets in, the government has consistently thrown up their hands and blamed it on the public.
In August, we were asked to open our wallets and crowd restaurants through chancellor Rishi Sunak’s “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, which was unsurprisingly seized upon by young people. Given the high rents and low salaries for young people in London, dining out is a luxury; of course we wanted half-price meals! But just a week after the scheme ended, young people’s social habits were being blamed for the approaching second wave. Meanwhile, university students were encouraged to return to campus in September, only to be locked down in cubicle-like accommodation while learning moved online.
Throughout the year, the government’s messaging has been confusing and misleading. “Tier 4” was only invented on Saturday. While we’re told it’s necessary due to this new strain of Covid, the government has reportedly known about it since September, and neglected advice from scientific officials who insisted further lockdown measures were needed to prevent its spread. Back in October, a two-week circuit-breaker lockdown urgently recommended as potentially life-saving by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies was ignored.
And then, of course, there’s Brexit. The deadline is less than two weeks away, and the government has never seemed more shambolic. Alarmist headlines about supply chains and food imports appeared in the days following Saturday, as France blocked lorries trying to cross from the UK due to the new strain. French EU internal market commissioner Thierry Breton said the UK could have received financial aid in their coronavirus fight from the EU’s €750bn recovery plan if it weren’t for Brexit.
You simply have to laugh. London feels emptier and colder than ever, and there’s quite literally no one to see and nothing to do. Multiple friends of mine have remarked that it feels like we’re in a film (again); after months of acclimatising to life under Covid, this renewed sense of cinematic doom is reminiscent of the pandemic’s outbreak in March. After an exhausting day of reading the news, my friend Ruth sent me a photo of herself smoking the cigarettes she normally saves for weekends at the pub. “It is literally a joke now,” she said. “All we have left is banter.”