Life under lockdown beyond the Red Wall: A freshers’ week like no other and disgruntled first-time Tories

Two million people in the north discovered they were about to be locked down via Twitter.

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Welcome to Lockdown 2, the disappointing sequel. Life beyond the Red Wall has become distinctly darker, not because autumn is here but because of the new local lockdown rules imposed suddenly on 18 September, just before the start of the new university term. The north-east was surprised to become an overnight Covid sensation and it certainly came as a shock to Sky News, which chose to announce the new restrictions via a full-screen map that located Sunderland somewhere in the middle of Cumbria.

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The north is globally renowned as a friendly and welcoming place. So, you’d think that if you were going to lock down two million people it might be polite to tell them about it in advance, right? Wrong. Instead, we discovered our fate via Twitter. Through an interview with the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, the story was revealed by Robert Peston, the ITN journalist who also broke news about another northern drama, the run on the Northern Rock bank at the start of the 2007-8 global financial crash. The UK government did not confirm Peston’s “leak” until lunchtime the following day, creating further confusion and anxiety in a region already struggling to cope with the onset of a second Covid wave. 

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While there may not be dragons beyond the Red Wall, there are certainly a lot of disgruntled first-time Tory voters. Even face masks can’t hide working-class disappointment at the Prime Minister’s absent leadership, his government’s inconsistent messaging and the testing fiasco. As I write, someone with symptoms in Newcastle would be expected to drive to Galashiels in Scotland (75 miles away) for their nearest test. During a recent run along the seafront in South Tyneside, I spied a poster pasted to a bin that depicted Boris Johnson as a contemporary Oliver Hardy and Matt Hancock as his snivelling Stan Laurel. A very fine mess indeed. 

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As soon as the second lockdown was announced, Newcastle and Sunderland city centres were overrun with camera crews eager to capture northern drinkers making the most of mingling in the (rare) September sunshine before the social shutters descended once more. While no one wants to be called in from play early, the speed and sanctions of the second lockdown were greeted by most in the north-east with resignation, not the disdain expected by some commentators. It’s fair to say that many people there are suspicious of the London media and its perceived lack of understanding about the region (let alone about where it is situated geographically in relation to the South – see earlier). But, on this occasion, public concern was not for accuracy but safety. By parachuting journalists into the region, the TV broadcast media were complicit in creating the conditions necessary to spread the virus. As the camera crews discovered, there is not much to see here, especially now that Newcastle’s Bigg Market – stag and hen night central – has been compelled to close at 10pm. 

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The Covid curfew, now extended nationwide, is perhaps the strangest part of the lockdown-shaped pandemic panacea: 10pm is normally when the party starts up here and the idea that we are all safe until nightfall, when the vampire-virus emerges, is a bit hard to believe. The restrictions seem predicated on the idea that Covid-19 loves team sports, crowded pubs and hanging out between the hours of 10pm and 5am (do not insert student joke here). 

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The confusing government slogan for the local lockdown – “bubbling good, mingling bad” – did not help a growing sense that it’s one rule for us and another for the rest of the country. When we are supposedly “all in this together”, it is difficult to tell students that they can spend freshers’ week attending grouse shooting parties but not house parties. It is equally hard to justify why they can socialise in our city bars but not in the gardens of their own private accommodation. While grouse hunters are granted permission to roam freely, illegal raves have become a target for demonisation by the tabloid press. 

If Covid-19 is unable to penetrate wax jackets, this could be excellent news for us, since South Shields has been home to the Barbour factory since 1894. The Red Wall crumbled in the 2019 election under a Labour pledge to serve the “many, not the few”. In the face of a global challenge, party politics can seem an unhelpful distraction, but the farce of local lockdowns has exposed Johnson’s harem of advisers and ministers as a profoundly southern clique (despite Dominic Cummings’s adventure in Barnard Castle); a government that knows little about the north, and cares even less. 

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The pandemic has profiled the power of the people who care for us, and this extends to education. Like schools and colleges, universities did not “shut” in March. Following a rapid switch to online teaching, universities have been busy fighting the bin-fire of researching a vaccine, creating PPE and negotiating an exams crisis. The one thing keeping us going was the prospect of seeing our students again and meeting the new generation who have endured the recent chaos with us. But how do you socially distance freshers’ week?

We all knew it would be different this year, but nothing could have prepared us for induction in isolation. In the north we are used to doing a lot with not a lot, and the resourcefulness, resilience and damn-fine digital savvy of my colleagues has been a wonder to behold. Freshers’ week 2020 will be like no other, for all the worst reasons, in all the best ways. 

Katy Shaw is Professor of Contemporary Writings at Northumbria University and the author of “Hauntology” (Palgrave)

This article appears in the 25 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The autumn of discontent

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