Vaxxed-up and raring to travel, I have left the safety and security of my home in New Zealand for somewhere distinctly less secure – Boris Johnson’s UK.
New Zealand is the place I imagine many people would want to live during a pandemic, given the choice. I’m certainly grateful for the relative freedom I have enjoyed for much of the past 18 months, going to shows and restaurants without having to mask up or worry unduly about social distancing. Now is definitely time for a change though.
Why am I so sure of this? After all, I have come to live in a city which is possibly about to enter another phase of Covid exponentiality. Perhaps only a fool would do this, but I think those of us who have chosen to travel now are doing so on the basis that it’s a risk worth taking.
It was certainly a hassle getting all the paperwork done so I could travel, but once on the plane, I found the whole thing went very smoothly. On arrival in London, after a 40 minute queue for immigration, because I had all the paperwork ready I was through in about 20 seconds.
London is my home town. I grew up here and lived in central London for most of the first 20 years of my working life. For the last 20 I have been lucky enough to return many times to enjoy a few weeks with friends and family.
Which made the last 18 months a rather different experience. I’ve been living in a country which locked down for less than three months in all, by shutting off from the rest of the world. Most people have already forgotten what it was like to see our cities deserted and everyone out on the streets (literally, with no cars about) twice a day for their allowed exercise.
Chatting with my friends overseas on Zoom I found myself apologising for telling them all the things I had been up to (playing golf, going to shows, going on a hiking trip in the South Island) while they were still locked down. And since I usually work from home anyway, the privisations of lockdown didn’t affect me that much.
It was just the relentless sameness of my days that I shared with everyone stuck at home here. I’ve spent so much time travelling in my work over a 30 year stretch, after 18 months of relative isolation I felt the need to reconnect with the rest of the world, hoping of course that the worst of Covid was over.
My mother lives just outside London and both our children live and work in central London. They had lived in NZ since they were 6 and 4, but having finished high school, they both found Auckland was too tame and headed for the UK to study and then to work.
Having to wear a mask again pretty much all the time when you’re in public spaces, is not so bad. If people here can do it for 18 months pretty much without a break, then so can I. For me, having lived and worked in Asia for over 20 years, mask culture is familiar, which made it all the more frustrating in the early days, having to argue with people, including members of my own family, that masks make a difference.
Anyway, today is Freedom Day (hurray!), the magical day when everyone is supposed to feel the weight of Covid restrictions lifting off their shoulders. The country has been waiting a long time for this. Clubs and pubs will be open and crowds will gather. This is the big test for the people though, to see if they can exercise the ‘personal responsibility’ needed to stay free and avoid a return to lockdown conditions.
It’s a perilous balancing act really, because Delta variant strain numbers are climbing – the UK is now ahead of India in daily recorded cases, 50,000 a day and rising – and there are plenty of medical experts saying we really shouldn’t be lifting all restrictions at this point.
My feeling is that the majority will still wear masks in shops and public transport. As someone said, populism often misjudges the population. A minority will stubbornly refuse to respect sensible masking etiquette, but the majority will do the right thing.
And then there are people like me, who are still not in the swing of it. I just realised I have not been wearing my mask for the last 20 minutes on the tube. Doh! The other day I did the opposite and forgot to remove my mask as I was beginning a golf round with three friends. Of course, my golfing partners let me carry on looking like a twat walking up the fairway until I twigged. It’s clear I’m still a Covid novice.
I’m going to be here for a while, ensconced in a flat in north London, very close to where I lived in my 20s. Over the next few weeks and months I hope to keep posting my observations of life over here.
Belsize Park, London – 19th July 2021
‘Freedom Day’: how the rules are changing