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Tuesday, September 22, 2020
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Out of lockdown, into the new abnormality

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THE lockdown is to be lifted gradually, to prevent any of us getting too excited or frightened at the dangers of being allowed out. 

I have seen draft copies of the plans, which are being widely leaked in the hope of seeing whether the general public will wear any of it, and I can share with you some of the top-level thinking.

First, and most importantly, ministers are determined to ensure that the five tests are satisfied, and for that to happen the numbers have to be right. This is, of course, not in the sense that any of them bear any relation at all to what is happening in the real world. Most of us realised some weeks ago that the figures we are being given have a certain flexibility about them.

We all have our favourites. Many enjoyed Matt Hancock, the pandemic’s answer to Tommy Cooper, magicking up 40,000 extra virus tests in order to meet his 100,000 target for the end of April. Just like that.

One for the connoisseurs was the first count given by Downing Street of numbers of deaths not just in hospitals, but in ‘other settings’, such as care homes and private homes as well. Observe the skilled craftsmanship behind the decision to include only care home deaths of those who had been tested for the virus, which wasn’t a high proportion.

But there was more. Confident that nobody would actually look beyond the headline, Downing Street published figures which claimed that, on a number of days during April, more people died of the virus in hospitals alone than died in hospitals, care homes, private homes and all other places put together.

Please don’t think I’m making this up. The humorists are the civil servants at the Department of Health and Social Care who did the counting.

The central statistical question is the R number. There have been commentators with nothing much else to say who have resorted to vulgarity about this. I will not resist temptation, so may I direct your attention to a version dredged up by one of the Wallace and Gromit films? They’re Rsing about.

While we’re having fun with the primary school arithmetic failures which have been such a feature of the past two months, it would be unfair to miss out Dame Emma Thompson. Dame Emma, whose silence was such a disappointment during the first weeks of lockdown, has spoken out on behalf of food poverty campaigners.

She has pronounced that ‘just a month of lockdown has seen five million parents and children experience food insecurity’.

This estimate was based on a survey of 2,268 parents. Dame Emma is not afraid of extrapolation. And relish the precision of that phrase, food insecurity.

You have to wonder if some of our grander showbiz dames ever object to spouting rubbish when it appears in a script, or do they just read it out, with suitable expression? Perhaps Dame Emma thinks it doesn’t matter if it’s all in a good cause.

There is no doubt of her readiness to make personal sacrifices in a good cause. Dame Emma told us last week that she has made a film for Extinction Rebellion, and during the process she had to follow the organisation’s rules. These included travelling on the Underground.

It is good of XR activists to have allowed Dame Emma’s Northern Line train to pass, a privilege they do not always extend to the rest of us. It is sad, however, that we have not been told more details of her adventure, such as, for example, the number of security guards she took with her.


Perhaps they did what they do for the Queen, and cleared a carriage for her private use. Perhaps there is a special Northern Line train for showbiz royalty, with First Class seating, sleeping cars, and a restaurant / buffet. There should be an observation car too, fitted with darkened windows, so the likes of Dame Emma can see how close they are to the people while they speed through Tottenham Court Road.


So to the plans. First, we are all going to have to wear masks. Some think this is an intrusion into personal autonomy, but I think how helpful it will be when the retail industry reopens and I go shoplifting.

As crowds return to the streets, there may be difficulties in keeping to the two-metre social distancing rule. The advice will be simple: pretend it’s raining. Open your umbrella and behave as you would on an ordinary rainy day, and then anyone who comes within the regulation distance will risk having their eye poked out.


Guidance from Grant Shapps, than whom none is better placed to give advice to businesses, says that working times should be staggered to avoid overcrowding.


This will mean that domestic building projects can resume, under new rules. Instead of all the builders not turning up on Monday, the electrician will not turn up on Monday morning, the tiler won’t turn up on Monday afternoon, and the plasterer won’t turn up on Tuesday.

Restaurants will reopen. To cope with the lunch and dinner rush, cooks can work at lunchtime, then the waiters can come in for the evening shift.

Rail unions have said staff will not work in dangerous conditions. Trains will therefore maintain social distancing, with extended gaps between services. No one will notice the difference.

Many people will continue working from home, or, in practice, binge-watching TV series such as the BBC’s glossy and very popular Normal People. This is 50 Shades for people who think they are too clever to watch 50 Shades.

I tried it, but the show parted company with reality at the point where the boy asks the girl if she only likes him as a friend, or, you know, like that.

Note to scriptwriters: Boys never ask a girl if she wants them as a friend or otherwise. The question is a device used by girls as a way to let boys down gently.

I bet Dame Emma could have told them that.

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