Under the lockdown, which began on 24 March, non-essential businesses had to close. The following can remain open:
- Food shops
- Health shops
- Petrol stations
- Bicycle shops
- Home and hardware stores
- Laundrettes and dry cleaners
- Car rentals
- Pet shops
- Corner shops
- Post offices
We have been told to stay at home, with the following exceptions:
- Shopping for basic necessities “as infrequently as possible”;
- Exercising once a day (e.g. running, walking or cycling), either alone or with members of the same household;
- Walking your dog (this counts as your daily exercise);
- Attending to medical needs, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person;
- Donating blood;
- Travelling to and from work “but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home”;
- For under-18s with separated parents: visiting both parents’ homes.
(Source: this Guardian article, which also has an interesting video on how the lockdown is being enforced in various countries around the world.)
With the above exceptions, we have been told to avoid mixing with members of other households.
Even after the lockdown began, Tube trains were still full at rush hour, because although fewer people were travelling, there were also fewer trains running. This led to a bit of sniping between Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, and Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London and chair of the transport authority:
“There’s no good reason in the information I’ve seen that the current levels of Tube provision should be as low as they are,” said Hancock. “We should have more Tube trains running.”
The Tube couldn’t run a full service, replied Khan, because so many staff were absent, and the government should stop passing the buck and start “taking the difficult decisions they are refusing to take to ban non-essential construction work and provide proper financial support to [allow] freelancers, the self-employed and those on zero-hours contracts to stay at home.”
There was initially some confusion over the lockdown guidelines – for example, whether children of separated parents could travel between households; whether couples who spend a lot of time at each other’s homes but don’t live together could continue to see each other; and what counted as “essential work” – which the government had to scramble to clarify, first to itself and then to the public.
It was decided that children of separated parents could continue to see both parents. Many couples had to hastily “define their relationship” and decide whether or not they were going to live together. (One couple who was interviewed on the radio said that after 10 months of dating and having recently reached the stage of each keeping a toothbrush at the other’s house, they had decided to move in together for the lockdown and were finding it a real trial by fire. They set up home offices in different rooms so that they didn’t have to see too much of each other during the day.)
There was some clutching at straws by businesses claiming “essential” status in order to remain open. Sports Direct, for example, a chain that sells sports clothing and equipment, announced that it would be staying open, explaining that if people were to continue exercising through the lockdown, they would naturally need to buy gear at Sports Direct. (After being told to “back off” by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, the chief executive of Sports Direct, Mike Ashley, issued a statement reflecting: “In hindsight, our emails to the government were ill-judged and poorly timed … Our intentions were only to seek clarity from the government as to whether we should keep some of our stores open”.)
There was also some blatant ignoring of the rules, with workers at call centres run by the outsourcing firm Capita being forced to keep working in crowded, unhygienic work conditions and Sky TV engineers being sent into people’s homes to do repairs.
Near where I live there’s a road with a row of shops. At the moment they’re almost all closed, with just a couple of little grocery shops open. Oddly, the pound shop (where everything costs £1) is also open. Perhaps it managed to get itself classified as a grocery shop because you can pick up some instant noodles and chocolate peanuts when you go in to get your party decorations and picture frames. A hamburger shop and a kebab shop also remain defiantly open. A guy sitting at the window eating a kebab caught me staring in bemusement as I went past the other day and gave me a cheery wave.
To be sure, the definition of “essential services” is not an exact science. In Belgium hairdressers have been classified as essential, which they are furious about because it means they can’t claim state compensation if they choose to close, but obviously they can’t do their job at a safe distance from their clients. (Hairdressers in the UK have been shut down. The search “how to cut own hair” surged on Google Trends the day after the lockdown was announced, and the internet is now full of photos of people’s horrific home haircuts.)
Meanwhile, US states are getting really creative with their lists of essential services. In New Hampshire florists are staying open (so people can have flowers at funerals); in California marijuana shops are open (strictly for medical purposes) and in Arizona you can still go to the golf course (for exercise).
And gun shops. Ah, the gun shops. People are scared, there’s an enemy out there (it’s 0.0002mm in diameter, but still), and all over the US, people are panic-buying guns:
It’s a bit of an odd phenomenon, this lockdown, and it’s not at all what I was expecting. When I first heard of the lockdowns in China, I thought “How surreal. Stopping people leaving their city! Stopping them leaving their homes! Even for a government as authoritarian as China’s, how is that even possible?”
But then it happened in Italy, a democracy. And gradually I got used to the idea. And by the time it happened here, I was not only psychologically ready for it; I felt it was overdue. It’s funny how your points of reference can change so quickly.
To be fair, the lockdown here is a very soft version. Even Wuhan’s “lifting of the lockdown” is stricter than our actual lockdown. But even so, if you had described this situation to me a few months ago, I would have found it incomprehensible.