At the start of June 2020, I had dinner with my boyfriend and his parents (my household at the time). For the first time, we felt like we were over the worst of the pandemic. Cases of Covid-19 had fallen dramatically, as had deaths, and at the time outdoor mixing had not caused a new spike. It was getting warmer; restrictions were easing. Though we still had concerns, we were excited that soon we might be able to see our friends and family again.
This was the first and last time I felt real hope for things to get better. Back then, even as we acknowledged the pandemic wasn’t over, it was hard to imagine it could ever get much worse.
Since then, I have had to manage my expectations and my inclination to hope. The government has consistently oversold on every promise and failed to communicate the realities of both how the virus is transmitted and the likelihood that the first lockdown would not be the last. A few weeks after the November lockdown ended in England, Christmas was effectively cancelled with six days to go and, for millions of Londoners, only a few hours to legally travel across the country.
When we exited the first lockdown, many believed it would be the end of serious restrictions – an expectation that was never actively curbed. But if the last year has been marked by one thing, it is the repeated emotional whiplash. Now, in the current lockdown, people are feeling the worst they’ve felt throughout the entire pandemic. Most Britons are finding it harder to stay positive, even though, on paper, we have more reasons to be more hopeful now than ever before. The vaccine rollout is going better than almost anywhere else in the world; the UK is on track to have offered the vaccination to all adults by July. Evidence suggests the vaccines are reducing transmission and hospitalisation, and as of Monday 22 February, Boris Johnson has outlined a roadmap out of lockdown starting as early as 8 March.
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Yet in the face of such promising news, many are feeling the same creeping feeling – that this has to be too good to be true, based on what we’ve experienced for the last 11 months (something which isn’t helped by competing testimonies about what the government’s plans are, leaked anonymously to journalists). Three lockdowns in, people are understandably suspicious and wondering: can we really believe that this will be the end of the worst? Our capacity for hope has been damaged, leaving only the anticipation of disappointment. You need to only look at the comments and replies to positive stories about vaccinations and lockdown easing to see people warning others not to feel optimistic, in case like before we have been wrongly promised a way out.
However, perhaps for the first time since this began, the science is pointing towards the positive. Tim Spector, the head of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London and a founder of the Covid-19 tracker the Zoe App, says that people should feel optimistic about the summer and that, while he expects restrictions similar to summer 2020, he also believes that we are unlikely to ever go back into a full lockdown again.
“No one wants to say never, not in science and medicine,” he says, “But I don’t think full lockdowns are going to come back. It would have to be some major new strain or virus – so I think people can be generally confident that there won’t be any further major lockdowns, but at the same time I think the idea that restrictions of all kinds will be lifted, that’s not going to happen either.”
Alongside some restrictions this summer, Spector says we may have to ease and tighten rules if and when there are outbreaks. However, he believes that these outbreaks would be roughly a few hundred people, rather than the tens of thousands of daily cases that we are experiencing right now.
“I think people will be able to have normal social lives – see friends, see relatives, travel around the country, go to pubs, restaurants, work, etc… There’s a view that for the next few years life isn’t going to get back to 100 per cent normal, but it’s going to be a hell of a lot more normal than it is now.”
Spector emphasises that “Zero-Covid is not going to happen”, and argues that the safest approach for the years ahead would not be numerous restrictions, but “continuing safety measures”. He suggests people should still wear masks on public transport and use disinfectant regularly and foresees the use of rapid testing before events, vaccine boosters and vaccine passports.
“You know, there might be outdoor festivals this summer and people might have to take a rapid Covid test before they go in,” he says. “It might cost £20, but that could be the price of admission – it’s not total restrictions,” he says.
To get the public on board with these less restrictive, more permanent changes, the government needs to change its messaging, as well as expand the capacity of the NHS. “Unfortunately, they ramp up the fear factor. They just think everyone is a bit of a moron and the only way to get the population to do anything is to frighten the hell out of them.” Spector says that we should expect some greater restrictions in the winter and prepare for outbreaks in the same way we would for flu, but that our lives will largely be lived with restrictions that will only increase occasionally to combat changes in the virus. “Everyone should be feeling optimistic.”
For the last year, we have been conditioned to expect only the worst from this pandemic – and even when things do improve, we worry they will be temporary; that a new lockdown is always on the horizon, about to appear with no warning. But while the pandemic may continue even with most of the population vaccinated, we should feel hopeful that we are likely entering a new stage in it. It may not be like 2019, but it won’t be like 2020 either. And as time goes on, we will gradually whittle down risks and restrictions until our lives reach a new, accommodating routine.