All clapped out?

Exactly one year on since the start of the Clap for Heroes, Jo Knowsley discusses the lessons learned.

It is now a year since we first stood outside our homes, clapping for carers and banging pots and pans in a noisy recognition of all that was being done for us…

I was sitting in the park last Tuesday at midday, having a quiet coffee, at the time of the nationwide one-minute silence held to commemorate the anniversary of Britain’s first Covid lockdown.

‘Woof, woof, woof,’ barked my companion at the top of her voice. (In fairness, she’s a dog who had no awareness that she should keep quiet during this significant silence.)

But in that moment she reminded me of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who this week proclaimed that the past year had been one of the most difficult in the nation’s history. Almost 150,000 people have died.

He’s barked repeatedly over the past 12 months about the selfless contribution of carers and NHS nurses during the pandemic, but most recently dropped the ball and did an unwelcome U-turn over their salaries, declaring that instead of a promised 2.1 per cent pay rise they would be getting a derisory 1 per cent.

Nobody could predict we’d be engulfed by a deadly and financially ruinous pandemic, asserted Health Secretary Matt Hancock, in an explanation of why the money just wasn’t there.

The NHS Pay Review Body is now to undertake its own study in May before it issues recommendations on pay awards.

It is now a year since we first stood outside our homes, clapping for carers and banging pots and pans in a noisy recognition of all that was being done for us by the doctors and nurses of the NHS; a year since we were told that staying at home would save lives; a year since our worlds shrank to the style of a 19thcentury village in rural England: a life that would have been familiar to our great-great-great-grandparents who probably couldn’t afford to leave their hamlets, and who would have had few places they could get to if they did.

Many of us, on the other hand, with our privileged cosmopolitan lifestyles, better health and higher salaries, have had access to worldwide flights, international holidays and have become as used to jumping on a plane as catching a bus. The only vaccinations we were familiar with as adults were those for typhoid or yellow fever if we planned to visit more exotic holiday destinations.

In a moment our familiar lives were stolen from us, ripped asunder by an invisible virus.

If we were lucky we could grab a takeaway coffee, during the walks we were allowed as part of the recommendation to leave our homes for exercise. We could chat to neighbours across the back fence – but no closer – as we lived in terror of catching the dreaded virus.

There followed on-again, off-again lockdowns – the disastrous Eat Out to Help Out, which only served as a super spreader for a virus that showed no signs of going away. The foolish five-day Christmas break we were promised was cancelled in most of the country.

Even Santa Claus had to make his deliveries by Amazon. Then came the third and most depressing lockdown over the dim, dark days of winter. Psychologists have warned that where the population began the pandemic living in fear we are now existing under a depressing cloud of exhaustion.

So how do we feel now that half the adult population has received their first vaccinations? Now there is a glimmer of hope that we may be able to travel again, even if initially it’s probably best not to sail too far from our own shores?

We should be aflame with unbridled excitement, the promise of longed-for foreign climes, days on distant beaches, under blazing sunshine; eagerly anticipating all that wine, beer and cocktails we will soon be able to enjoy in bars and restaurants that will once again ring with conversation, echoing loud with communal laughter.

But in just 12 months this has all become so scarily unfamiliar that for some people even the thought of a cheek-kiss, or handshake, can create a weird, almost spooky anxiety.

It’s as if, after being repeatedly drilled to stay at least 2 metres away from others, even the thought of getting any closer is enough to raise our blood pressure.

Many people are now terrified – even under their masks – every time they leave home for the supermarket, let alone considering heading for a train station or airport.

A man in the park in east London I visited last week, screamed ‘fuck off’ and fled, when another man asked if he could sit at the far end of the same park bench – a voluntary pariah now conditioned to keep as far away from any fellow human as possible.

There are positives, of course, and big differences from the lives our distant ancestors endured during historic plagues in their small towns and villages.

We have a vaccine now, and a wavering hope that the future will see the return of some sort of normality. But the effects of the blanket of fear and foreboding that has engulfed much of the nation may take much longer to disappear.

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Jo Knowsley

Jo has held senior staff writing roles on some of Britain’s leading newspapers including the Sunday Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday, and is now a freelance writer. She has reported on major breaking stories around the world and has written for magazines and newspapers in Britain, Australia and New Zealand in publications as diverse as Marie Claire, the Daily Mail, Metro, Saga and Grazia. In the past she focused primarily on news-lead reports and interviews. Today she writes across a number of platforms on subjects ranging from property and travel to theatre and features. She grew up in New Zealand and has made her home and career in London since 1990.

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