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16 September 2020

I’m finally tasting freedom – but have I left it too late to enjoy lockdown easing?

I've started venturing out more, but already I hear the warning: we're not done yet.

By Tracey Thorn

I picked a brilliant week to start venturing out a bit more. After six full months spent more or less entirely at home, I began to feel that perhaps I was being too cautious, and that it was time to tiptoe back into the outside world.

A walk on Hampstead Heath with my daughter ended in me buying my first takeaway coffee since March, and sitting with her in the garden of Kenwood House felt so good that the next morning, on my solo walk, I did it again.

A few days later I got a train out of London to visit my sister for the first time since February. The 10.33 from London Paddington to Exeter was virtually empty, which was both reassuring and slightly spooky. The guard’s announcements about wearing masks and sitting in the window seat and leaving empty rows echoed round the deserted space. Alone in my carriage, I kept my mask on and looked out the window.

Did the outside always rush by this fast? Was it always this interesting? I hadn’t remembered being so gripped by the sight of bridges, tower blocks, car parks and fields. Two stops later I was off the train and sitting outside a restaurant with my sister, and it was like no time at all had passed, while at the same time feeling that we last met in a different century and a different world. And then I ate the first meal I hadn’t cooked for myself since lockdown began, and reader, it was good.

I know other people have been out and doing all these things for a while now. I feel a bit behind the times, more hesitant about any return to normal, more scared basically. Maybe you think I’m overdoing it, still living such a sheltered life. There’s a dividing line now between those who embrace every new freedom, and those of us who are still mostly locked down, and it’s not just generational; it’s also related to the risk status we were assigned at the very beginning.

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Among the shielded are many people, of all ages, who’ve experienced serious illness before, who’ve been in ICU and on ventilators and had long recoveries, and know what it all means.

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For those people, caution now is not just to do with the rules, or the statistics, or the quantifiable risk factor. It is felt in a more visceral, less hypothetical way. The experience of illness stays with you, and risk doesn’t seem so vague when it has had you in its grip before.

So. Ben and I continue living our quiet, slow life, which we have of course got used to. Change now is difficult. The feeling reminds me of being on a long walk, when you sit down and rest and then getting up and carrying on is harder. I’ve been sat down for months and it’s hard to get up and get going.

My week ends with an early Sunday morning walk to the river. It’s a route I used to do often – down through Regent’s Park, past the BBC and All Souls Church, down Regent Street to Piccadilly Circus, through Trafalgar Square, finally emerging to cross the river on the Golden Jubilee Bridge.

It’s a beautiful bright sunny morning, the first hint of autumn in the air, and everything looks the same. The river, the buildings, the streets – they’ve all been here waiting for me. I meet up with my friend Mark, one of the DJs from Duckie, and we drink coffee and walk beside the river and talk about what we miss and what we’re watching on the telly.

It’s lovely to see him again after so long. The last time we met was one of my last nights out, to an event in early March which was packed with people. There was loud music, and dancing, and we got drunk and shouted into each other’s faces, and we now wonder aloud how we didn’t all die of Covid the following week.

But have I left it too late to enjoy some of the lockdown loosening? I return home to the news of confirmed cases having spiked. The next day there are messages from the government’s scientific advisers that people have “relaxed too much”. Speak for yourself, I think. I had barely started. And after my week of living ever so slightly dangerously, I hear the warning loud and clear: we’re not done yet. Not yet.