‘PLEASE consider wearing a face mask in this shop …’

I did consider and I did wear one, but no one else came to the same conclusion.

Apparently, the pandemic is over. In late February, just before Partygate questionnaires were due in, Boris Johnson told us that Covid restrictions, due to be lifted at the end of March, would in fact end in three days. All of a sudden, we would be ‘learning to live with Covid’, face masks would no longer be mandated in most buildings, and lateral flow tests would cease to be free from 1 April.

Apparently, the pandemic is not over. Suddenly, lots of people I know were becoming infected. The figures are now slowly declining: in the week ending 22 April, there were 1 956 deaths of people who had tested positive within 28 days, an average of about 280/day (government data), and the Zoe Covid study estimates 3.5m people (about 1 in 19) in the UK with ‘active’ infection. Similar numbers used to make the news. Forecasts suggest the picture will likely continue to be a rolling graph of peaks and troughs.

The pandemic is not over for the NHS, and I continue to work from home after 26 months. Counselling via video link works well: vital facial cues are visible, and the connection is usually good. Logistical difficulties have postponed our return to the workplace, but when it happens factoring in travel time will be a shock, and face to face work will require masks.

The plan is that work will be ‘blended’ and involve flexibility as we discover the relative popularity of in-person and remote therapy. Meetings could be either, perhaps alternating monthly. I have some anxiety about this variable and somewhat ‘bespoke’ way of working after two years of predictable structure. I’ll be moving to a medical centre I haven’t worked in before and will have less control over my proximity to other people. I’ve had one cold since early 2020 – that will change!

The world has discovered video platforms and there’s no doubt about the advantages, the saving of time and travel, but they lack the richness of being with others in a variety of locations. It often makes environmental sense to ‘zoom’, but the benefits of real contact are important to mental health. Here’s a pandemic-induced issue where thoughtful choices matter.

When I meet friends now, we might contemplate a hug, but I decline. Through social distancing and having few visitors at home, I’ve developed an embedded aversion to physical closeness, fed by a fear of infection and, I guess, government rules. I automatically avoid others, walk into the road if necessary. It feels sad, but advisable. With little testing, and no need to isolate, the possibilities of infection seem greater. I fear long Covid most of all, but maybe I am just putting off the inevitable. About 70% of the population have had the virus after all.

I move tentatively into this new world. A leaving-do meal is a small group, we’re the only diners, and the food and company are good. I feel the benefits of this contact. It’s warming up and outdoor catch-ups are more comfortable. I might actually get back on a train soon for a real meeting in Leeds.

Penny Merrett, Sheffield

AS I write this, we are now two weeks back into our return to France, having been in the UK for three and a half weeks. This was the first time we had seen our family for two years, other than by video conferencing, so the UK visit was a very happy and poignant time. The biggest observable changes have taken place in the smallest people, with our grandchildren having grown enormously both physically and emotionally. But over the last two years so much else has changed as well, and it is very hard for us disentangle the differences caused by Brexit and those the fruit of the pandemic. So, what have I learned over the two years?

Over the past two years, I am aware, we have allowed the state to dictate to us more than we would have tolerated in the past. Mask wearing has been one of those aspects of life where we have gone along with what was asked of us. Personally, I did not feel this was an imposition but something that was explained to me as beneficial, both for myself and for others, and I have been happy to wear one. The evidence all points to the virus travelling on the air we breathe and that small, confined spaces, unmasked, are areas of high contagion. As we travelled from France at the beginning of March, where masks were still mandatory in public places, to the UK where they were not, it was quite a shock to the system and made us realise how used to wearing masks we had become. We almost felt naked and vulnerable when not wearing a mask – so we continued to wear masks in crowded public spaces while in the UK. Most people did not, so we stood out, along with the other people who felt vulnerable and were wearing masks.

Though many in the UK seem to think the pandemic is over, and we ‘just have to learn to live with it’, ‘living with it’, for me, does not equal ‘getting it’. It may be less lethal now, for some age groups, but it is still an illness, with potentially lethal consequences, that I do not want to get. I feel it is no coincidence that the people telling us to ‘just get on with it’ and go back to normal (whatever that was) are the same folk who pushed for Brexit and told us not to listen to experts.

During the pandemic lockdown I learned, if I did not know it before, that I can live with a small group of people, I don’t need a large social circle. Being self-sufficient is fine for me and my pleasures are small and personal – I appreciate this is not the same for all people, but lockdown did not equal deprivation for me.

What the recent journey did do, though, was to remind me of the kindness of individuals, even of strangers. We encountered many lovely and helpful people in both the UK and France over the three weeks of our journey. This transcends nationality – on our journey we met many people, talked and laughed, shook our heads over the absurdity of things and moved on. In the UK, where we at least share a common language, at the individual level everything was easy and amicable. It is at a deeper level that things have changed – I fear, not for the better (the subject of a much longer blog/essay/book!).

Jonathan Merrett, Sallèles d’Aude

HALF-arsed. That was the verdict in March from a group of medics and academics when the South African government yet again tweaked its Covid regulations in terms of the national state of disaster.[i] On 4 April that was lifted, leaving the country to cope with its many routine disasters.

Two years of pandemic regulations and they are not entirely over. The entire world shares a number of existential crises, felt to different degrees in different places at different times. But in March 2020 the utter silence of the total lockdown brought home a realisation that the global had become truly local; or was it the reverse?

A couple of South African statistics stand out. The official Covid death toll is just over 100 000, but excess deaths suggest 300 000. Other countries have reported similar probabilities. More significant is the finding that as many as 70% of the population had been exposed to Covid before identification of the Omicron variant in November 2021. What does this widespread immunity say about the preceding eighteen months of lockdown?

Eventually the medical historians will come up with various explanations. But there is the temptation to look back already at a saga driven by an inflexible political mindset rather than public health imperatives. Or, less politely, ANC command-and-control inclinations rather than medical common sense. Certain elements originally hoped to collapse the economy in order to build some new supposed paradise on earth. Now they are trashing the Constitution, the rule of law, the courts and judicial independence.

Some of the regulations accompanying the harder lockdowns made no practical short- or long-term sense: bans on alcohol and tobacco sales; on outdoor exercise and swimming in the sea; on many supermarket purchases; and on hawking. They appeared to be decisions based on ulterior motives and inflicted enormous damage.

Certain requirements such as supposed deep cleaning provided endless opportunity for corruption; and as many as a dozen people died from security force brutality. It is doubtful if social distancing meant much in many parts of the country. Nowhere do most people have a clue what two metres might be. And many of the masks in use continue to be largely symbolic. Personal and anecdotal evidence suggests the Department of Health vaccination programme assisted by the private sector has been very efficient, but poorly promoted: less than 50% of adults are fully vaccinated.

Two legacies are apparent. First, the bloated and inefficient organisation laughingly known as the public service used Covid to indulge in even more lethargic and unhelpful behaviour and continues to do so. There is also a suspicion that other publicly funded institutions such as universities have privatised their space. And, second, it has been suggested that anger about harsh and unreasonable regulations that were ‘inconsistent, incoherent and illogical’i has bred a more general disregard for rules and increased contempt for authority that does not bode well.

Whatever diseases nature may in future throw at us, it seems fairly certain that outside highly authoritarian countries very hard lockdowns will not again be feasible. And this is for the best because in spite of all the intervention this pandemic followed an inevitable course similar to all its predecessors.

Christopher Merrett, Pietermaritzburg

[i] Marc Mendelson and others in DM 168, 22 March 2022.