Photo: Public Health Truck, 1947 from City of Minneapolis Flickr photo-stream

One thing that has struck me during the days and months since 23rd March 2020 has been how time has simultaneously slowed down and sped up. Or, more specifically, the passage of time has both sped up and slowed down. In terms of speeding up, on the larger scale, I seem to constantly hear friends and colleagues saying, “I can’t believe it’s July already”. Yet, at the same time, in terms of things slowing down, there are the intermittent periods of lockdown coupled to the interminable assaults of back-to-back zoom meetings which can make a day feel like a week. So much is happening around us in politics, public health, and our working lives, but at the same time, it seems like so little is happening because our capacity to participate in the world around us is limited by the pandemic.

Sociologically, we know that COVID-19 plays out along the well-established tropes of inequality and disadvantage. Still, it feels much more challenging to get this heard in the context of such unmitigated COVID-19 disruption. Given these difficulties, we must make sure the timelines are documented and remind ourselves constantly of where we have been since March 2020. It is imperative because this is the only way to understand where we are now and foster understandings of what has worked and what has not worked, in order to help us work out where we are going – (assuming, of course, there is an appetite in government to implement effective COVID-19 policies). Otherwise, as Marmot has demonstrated this week, the impact of COVID-19 will have a jaw-dropping impact on life expectancy in poor areas of the UK. Despite this, the UK government lurches towards ‘Freedom day’ with a promised ‘return to normal’ where the need for a collective public health response is backgrounded against the rhetoric of individual choice and behaviour.

Source: Institute of Government, reproduced under CC-NY

So I find myself wondering how we got here. I cast my eye back to the last blog I wrote for this site. It was at the beginning of December 2020. At that particular point in the pandemic, I was irked by the backbench revolt against the three-tier system introduced in England after the second lockdown. Ah yes, the three-tier system, who remembers that? What were the different levels again?

Then I had to look up when the second lockdown was and remind myself where we were and what was happening. A brief précis is that the second lockdown was announced on Saturday 31st October at the Prime Minister’s national briefing (remember them?) and was then implemented the following Thursday (on the 5th November). It was to last four weeks and was to be lifted by 2nd December in time to allow us all to enjoy a ‘normal Christmas’.

If you had asked me, I could have told you there was a second lockdown, but I couldn’t have told you any of these details. Rather handily, the Institute for Government has published a lockdown timeline. Here we can see that everything looked to be well after lockdown two, with Johnson announcing on 15th December that COVID-19 restrictions were to be relaxed over Christmas. Then on 21st December, new Tier 4 restrictions were announced across England. I have to confess I had forgotten about Tier 4. It turns out that Tier 4 was the full national lockdown that was implemented in January 2021 across England. Essentially it marked a return to full lockdown, but initially, it was rolled out locally rather than nationally.

Then we stumbled on towards the third lockdown. On 4th January, Johnson is on record as saying children should return to school after the Christmas break (i.e. 5th January), then on 6th January, England enters a Tier 4 national lockdown. There is no time limit stated this time; instead, an aspirational date sometime around the end of March was hinted at. Now, as we approach ‘freedom day’, where is the talk of tiers? Tiered systems of regional alerts have not featured in the local response since lockdown three was lifted in April (or was it May)? It is impossible to identify and agree upon a date that lockdown three was lifted, which means it is impossible to keep track of these things. Was lockdown lifted when schools went back at the beginning of March, or when six or more people were meeting outdoors at the end of March, or with non-essential retail and pubs opening in mid-April.  I say this as someone who researches public health, but in trying to make sense of them it is as if these events were happening both too quickly, and too slowly, at the same time.

My issue is not with the rolling lockdowns; they have been a necessary response to the government mishandling of the crisis. No, my point is more to do with the communication and how these twists and turns, led by the government, confuse us, the public, to the detriment of the public health response. How many iterations of tiers and national, regional and local lockdowns have we been through? If we researchers struggle to keep track of this, how are all those others, trying to cope with homeschooling or precarious employment, able to keep track? It is as if being in it, being witness to these events, makes it harder to gain and maintain a critical distance from which to observe.

All too frequently, we get pulled into questions about how the latest turn of events affects us and our families and friends. At a national level its as if we are punch drunk, lurching from one response to the next, all of them bringing some new and enduring successes, but also fresh and enduring failures. A recent report on temporal perspectives related to compliance with public health regulations identified that compliance with regulations concerning the COVID-19 pandemic was predicated on a need to focus on the ‘here and now’, combined with the belief about the value of the present and about the influence of current behaviours on the future.

The announcements this week, with mask-wearing left to personal choice and judgement, coupled to the rejection of public health measures in schools, and wrapped up in a rhetoric of individual choice and ‘freedom’ marks the apotheosis of this public health response. The government appears absolved of all responsibility as we enter forth into a bold new age of individualised public health decisions. Maybe this was the underlying strategy all along…