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It starts with an overwhelming feeling of tiredness. As the condition takes hold, sufferers may start to feel demotivated, even angry. In England, it may already be endemic in those parts of the north where this year has felt like one long endlessly rolling lockdown – in those places where fresh restrictions were reimposed within weeks of everyone emerging from hibernation this June, and people woke on Thursday to news that the government may now follow Scotland’s lead in shutting pubs and restaurants.
And no, this mystery illness isn’t long Covid, the symptoms that linger long after the fever subsides. It’s what the World Health Organization this week called “pandemic fatigue”, a Europe-wide phenomenon where people get so tired of living like this that they simply stop following the rules. The battle this winter is no longer just against a virus. It’s against an encroaching sense of hopelessness, exhaustion and resentment setting in as it becomes clear that eradicating the virus isn’t going to work, and “light-touch” local lockdowns are no longer keeping a lid on it.
In Calderdale or Newcastle now you can still teach a class of 30 potentially infectious children, serve customers in a shop all day long, or work in a factory that might be harbouring the seeds of next outbreak. But you can’t visit your elderly mum, have a glass of wine with a friend in their garden or plan a weekend away with any certainty. It’s all the slog, but none of the joy – “this is no life for people to be living”, as the Manchester MP Lucy Powell put it in parliament last week.
Some of her older constituents are getting desperately lonely, she says, while parents are feeling the strain of not getting a break this summer. Others ask angrily whether London-based policymakers would make such choices for them if they had to live like this themselves. When ministers first suggested back in spring that something called “behavioural fatigue” might undermine compliance with long, drawn-out lockdowns, scientists scoffed that there was no such term in the research literature. Yet what’s happening now in some northern cities is a living experiment in testing the thesis.
Powell still hopes her city, where hospitality isn’t regarded as a key route of transmission, won’t be singled out for further restrictions. Yet local politicians remain in the dark, even as Downing Street briefs friendly newspapers about what might happen on Merseyside and the vague-sounding “other parts of northern England”. What’s the plan, the grand strategy, the theory of why local lockdowns haven’t worked as planned? Powell is not impressed by talk of “circuit breakers”, or brief suspensions of normal life supposedly intended to break chains of transmission. Manchester’s experience, she says, is that lockdowns that were only ever supposed to be temporary become “a club you just never leave. Once you’re in, you’re in, and the only way forward is deeper in.”
Say what you like about Nicola Sturgeon – and, as the shutters come down on Glasgow pubs, perhaps some people will. But at least her position is crystal clear. There was little attempt to sugar the pill on Wednesday as she spelled out measures she must know will make people miserable – shutting hospitality in central Scotland and curbing alcohol sales elsewhere – but which she now deems necessary. Cancelling next year’s National 5 exams, Scotland’s equivalent of GCSEs, also suggests that families can’t just assume things will be back to normal by spring. While Boris Johnson can’t help sticking a jaunty cocktail umbrella on everything he has to tell the British public, Sturgeon serves her bad news straight up. Yet voters seem to respect her for it, rewarding her over the summer with approval ratings Downing Street would kill for.
If success is defined in nationalistic terms as doing better than England – leading more decisively, intervening before things get out of hand – that popularity is easy to understand. Sturgeon has stepped in when Scotland’s big cities are still barely warm by English hotspot standards (Glasgow has 222 cases per 100,000 compared with 476 in Newcastle). And Sturgeon was careful to show her working, publishing detailed papers linking an uptick of Covid cases from August to hospitality reopening in July.
But if success is defined as a gradual but steady emergence from lockdown into the light, then Scotland has arguably failed. We have heard much about its pursuit of “zero Covid”, a New Zealand-style holy grail that over summer seemed briefly within reach. Britain’s best hopes of a successful exit from lockdown seemed pinned on Sturgeon, widely praised for not rushing headlong to reopen, as England did, and for prioritising human health and wellbeing over the economy.
But now deaths, hospital admissions and ICU cases are all trending ominously upwards even here. Some may argue Scotland could still have eliminated the virus if Britain had had a better national test-and-tracing system. But as the saying goes, if we’d had some ham and we’d had some eggs, then we could have had ham and eggs. Without such a system or a vaccine, the realistic choice across Britain is now between the full lockdown that absolutely nobody wants; letting the virus rip, in vague hopes of achieving a herd immunity that may not even exist; or the uncertain road Scotland and Wales now seem to have chosen, of rolling partial lockdowns leavened by small gestures to make them easier to live with.
Younger children were exempt from Scottish social distancing rules over the summer holidays, in recognition of their need to play. Where pubs are shutting, Sturgeon said cafes could stay open in daytime so that those who are lonely could meet a friend for coffee. It seems someone may have read the WHO’s report on combating pandemic fatigue, which advises governments to avoid this sag in national morale by using all the evidence they can muster, acknowledge how hard this is on people, and let them live their lives wherever possible while reducing risk. To keep people on track, it argues, policies must be transparent, consistent, predictable, fair and avoid mixed messages. Compare that with Boris Johnson’s baffling 10pm curfew on English pubs, a compromise seemingly cobbled together after the cabinet couldn’t agree on anything else, which city mayors fear is simply encouraging pubgoers to congregate at the off-licence before carrying on the party at home.
The lesson we should be taking from Scotland isn’t about when to call last orders, however. It’s about leadership, and levelling with people; knowing how to take your country with you, and win its trust for whatever lies ahead, even when all the options are bad.
History may ultimately judge Sturgeon to have made the wrong calls, or even to have leapt for the nuclear button of a partial lockdown too early in what promises to be a very long winter. As the WHO puts it, “wide-ranging restrictions may not be feasible for everyone in the long run”. But at least Scotland is clear where its leader stands. England’s battle against Covid will not be won until it can say the same.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist
Source: The Guardian
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