There comes a point when the sun is shining, the skies are blue and the parks, hedgerows and roadsides are bursting with life, that the never-ending lockdown becomes a little tedious, especially if you are watching it from the window of a fifteenth floor flat, in a high-rise block, with three weans going bananas at your feet! Up until now, the daily warnings in Scotland were to stay at home, while south of the border the prison doors have been unlocked and people can sunbathe, picnic, barbecue and drive for miles to a beach or country park, so long as they observe rigorous social-distancing rules and only ever meet one person outside at a time! But in Scotland, house arrest continues, at least until next week! Nicola Sturgeon has promised some easing of restrictions, but not until 28 May, at least three weeks behind England. She has outlined four phases of conditional release from lockdown, in sharp contrast to what the Prime Minister has introduced south of the border. The confusion this has caused is palpable.
In England Boris Johnson has advised people who cannot work from home to return to their jobs. He says people can travel to visit parks, beauty spots and beaches for safe, socially distanced recreation. In Northern Ireland, new relaxed rules allow six people from different households to meet at a time. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon says we may be allowed to meet people from one other household, but only if we stay outdoors. She claims she is not playing politics, but already Angus MacNeil MP, the SNP’s member for the Na h-Eileanan an Iar, has called on Police Scotland to patrol the 96-mile-long border, to stop English day-trippers coming to relax on our hills, parks and beaches. Ian Blackford, the SNP’s leader at Westminster, went a stage further, sharing a tweet that said people trying to come to Scotland to avoid the virus should f**k off! Scottish ministers have told non-residents to keep away from the Highlands and islands and not to view rural communities as sanctuaries where they can escape the virus.If effectively closing the border is not playing politics by the Nats, then what is?
The First Minister says that after 28 May, she may allow us to sunbathe and sit on park benches. Wow! We may also be able to golf, play singles tennis and fish again and some garden centres will be allowed to open. For the police, who have to enforce the rules, it has become an almost impossible task. Some garden centres, faced with dumping millions of unsold spring flowering plants, began to sell food weeks ago, so that they could claim to be legitimate ‘essential’ businesses. What are the police supposed to do when they stop someone who has driven to a garden centre to stock up with plants, when they point to cheese, fruit and vegetables in their shopping trolley? Do they arrest them for cheating? Do they confiscate the clematis? It is unfair to require Police Scotland to take these decisions.
Lockdown fatigue has led to anarchy. Police have had to crack down on teenagers illegally racing quadbikes along paths and walkways around the Forth and Clyde Canal in Bishopbriggs, terrifying local dog-walkers. Large numbers of sunbathers were enjoying themselves this week on the beach at Portobello, in blatant breach of lockdown rules. Police had to shut down an illegal rave in Saltcoats, where an enterprising DJ had even set up a sophisticated sound system. Barbers and hairdressers have offered clandestine crewcuts and bootleg bobs to frustrated clients, by secret appointment and often at double the normal price.
When Scotland finally catches up with England, breaches of the lockdown laws will be harder than ever to police, with confusing rules about freedom of movement and the opening of golf courses and tennis courts. But at least England is moving towards the re-opening of schools and most clothing shops in June and hairdressers and beauty salons in July. Meanwhile in Scotland, some schools, shops and hairdressers will only be allowed to partially reopen in August. By that time most of us will have spent around 20 weeks in limited or total confinement. We will resemble a nation of ill-dressed, ill-kempt and probably ill-tempered zombies.
We Scots are not alone in feeling confused and suffering from lockdown fatigue. Perplexity reigns across the European continent. With public health and the EU economy caught in a delicate balancing act between saving ransacked businesses and stopping a new outbreak of the virus, the chaotic range of rules for easing the lockdown have mystified even the most rational citizens. People have taken to the streets in a number of countries to protest against continuing restrictions that they see being lifted elsewhere. The absence of a coherent approach is causing the same muddle and bewilderment in the EU as our own inconsistency is creating across the four nations of the UK. Trust in government and the perception that our leaders have got it wrong, have led to anarchic breakouts that put the community and the health service at risk.
In Berlin, which has fared relatively well during the pandemic compared to other EU Member States, police arrested dozens following violent protests against the severe on-going lockdown restrictions. Eighty-six people were detained after bottles were thrown at officers in a square in former East Berlin. In Belgium, simmering unrest that has divided the richer Flemish northerners and their poorer French-speaking neighbours in the south, have reached boiling point as both sides develop alternative ways of recovering from the virus. Arguments about financial aid and timetables for kick-starting the economy have inflamed the Dutch-speaking Flemish nationalists, who complain that they will end up paying the bills for the Francophone communities. There is now open talk of divorce, which has a familiar ring to Scottish ears and shows clearly how even Covid-19 can be wheeled out to serve the separatist cause.
With any return to pre-lockdown normality in Scotland still a distant prospect, we have to look back in history to find the likely final outcomes. Historically, pandemics either ended with the medical containment of the disease, which in our case could occur with the development of a successful vaccine, or they end when society loses its fear of the virus. With a vaccine still potentially a long way off, it’s time we lost our fear.