LONDON - The lockdown has been in place just over a week here in Britain, and beyond the economic and health concerns, the new restrictions are having myriad effects on a society that finds itself largely locked indoors.
The first place where people vent their thoughts and frustrations is on the local school parents’ WhatsApp group. The messages flood in in before we’ve fed the children breakfast. All schools are closed, so the WhatsApp group has become a vital tool for tips on completing homework, with parents having to relearn everything they’d forgotten since primary school as they perform as stand-in teachers. For us, it’s the Norman invasion of England in 1066, mixed with long division. Inevitably there are technical problems with the online learning system, prompting another flood of complaints.
Other parents post ‘breaking news’ style updates as supermarkets open online delivery slots -- a scarce and valuable commodity as panic buying grips the country.
Homework done, it’s time for the children to catch up with their classmates using apps like ‘Zoom’ or ‘House Party.’ My thoughts turn to what it would be like to be on lockdown with no internet. Would the sense of isolation be even more intense?
It seems to me the lockdown has pitted two core British values against each other: the right to privacy, to one’s own life, to roam freely; versus the general instinct to play by the rules, obey the law and maintain the social contract between government and individual.
That clash has manifested itself most clearly in the police response to the lockdown. Traditionally, policing is done here on the principle of community consent. By far the majority of police officers don’t carry guns. Suddenly, as in many countries across the world, Britain has become a surveillance state. In some places there are police checkpoints. We’re only allowed out to exercise once a day or to buy essential goods. Anyone caught breaking the new law faces a fine of $75.
When one police force released disapproving drone footage of walkers out in a national park there was an outcry on social media, with one former judge warning that it had ‘shamed the tradition of British policing.’ Another commentator claimed it was creating a vision of ‘dystopia.’ And when a British lawmaker recently tweeted a photo of himself briefly visiting his elderly father to wish him happy birthday, the local police force admonished him publicly on Twitter, even though they had stayed outdoors and at a safe distance. I too have elderly parents and would like to visit them to check that they are okay, but it’s not clear to me if that is an ‘essential journey’ under the new rules.
It’s not only the police who are monitoring people’s movements. There have been instances of neighbors reporting each other to authorities for leaving the house to exercise more than once a day, or for having people visit. Several police forces have set up hotlines or online portals to facilitate this.
There is much confusion about what is permitted under the new legislation. When I go out for my once-daily run or bike ride, am I allowed to take a five-minute rest halfway through, or must I hurry home? On our local Facebook page, some older residents have posted disapproving photographs of children playing in the park, describing it as bad parenting. In the comments sections beneath, other residents have noted that many older people didn’t follow the initial guidance on social distancing as they packed out the local garden centers and nurseries just days before the lockdown came into effect. It seems the new rules have caused some tension between the generations.
Most people do try to comply with the rules in their day-to-day interactions. I recently took my children to the local park to play in the cricket practice nets. It’s proving a popular option for the daily exercise outing, as the summer cricket season approaches and kids are desperate to play sports. Under normal circumstances, several families can use the adjacent nets at the same time, but the social distancing rules mean each family now politely waits their turn. One family insisted that this was nonsense and said we should all play alongside each other. That prompted a heated dispute, with accusations of queue-jumping, of breaking the spirit of the new laws, of putting health at risk. As the old British saying goes, ‘it’s just not cricket’ – meaning it’s not in the spirit of fair play, of British manners and gentlemanly conduct.
Such values may belong to a different era. But it’s clear that the unwritten rules of British society are being sorely tested and will likely become even more frayed by the time these restrictions come to an end, many weeks from now.