Much has been made of how Covid has deepened divisions in Britain: between the haves and the have-nots, the work-from-homers and the have-to-go-to-workers, the doves and the hawks, England’s north and south.
But as England approaches its second national lockdown on Thursday, a communal feeling unites the nation: gloom. If a sound could sum up the country’s mood it would be a long, drawn-out sigh. Give it a few more weeks and it could become a Munchian scream.
Working in the Humbugs sweet shop in Chippenham in Wiltshire, Rita Sargant summed up the prospect of a month at home succinctly. “Rubbish,” she said. “Life’s for living. I’m 89 and if I get Covid, get me a bottle of whisky and a box of chocolates and leave me.”
Whereas the panic-buying first time around was focused on toilet rolls and tinned tomatoes, this time people are stockpiling for comfort, she said. “People love their sweets. They’ve been coming in to stock up.”
In the supermarkets, yeast and bread flour – the “It” ingredients of the first wave – remain in plentiful supply, suggesting England is now happier on the sofa watching Bake Off instead of baking their own bread.
Asked what she would do during lockdown, Sargant replied: “God knows, I’ll go mad. Last time, I spent a lot of time in the garden, but I can’t do that this time because of the weather. I’ll walk three or four miles a day to keep me going.”
Millions of people kept fit with Joe Wicks during lockdown part one, but even the Body Coach himself cannot face daily workouts this time.
The 34-year-old said he was going to share three new workouts a week until the latest lockdown is over, “however long that takes”. Talking to Radio 4’s You And Yours on Tuesday, Wicks admitted it was hard to get motivated to exercise during winter “when it’s dark and grim and wet”.
Gyms are supposed to close on Thursday, but several insist they will defy the law and stay open. The owners of Gainz, a 24-hour gym in Bedford, posted a statement on Instagram explaining their reasoning. “We witnessed a breakdown in people’s mental health during the first lockdown and this isn’t something anybody wants to repeat,” they wrote. Bedfordshire police said it was aware of the post and said that as the legislation is not yet in force, the council was leading on the matter.
A beauty salon in Liverpool also said it would not shut up shop, vowing to fight the lockdown in court. Skin Kerr in Bootle has already been shut down once for displaying posters saying: “You can’t catch what doesn’t exist”, as well as banning masks and “Covid talk”.
However, overall, the prevailing mood is one of weary resignation rather than defiance. Back in Chippenham on Tuesday, the town was bustling. Some people were buying Christmas presents and wrapping paper, others taking advantage of pre-lockdown offers. One of the charity shops was offering everything at half price. Barbers, hairdressers, tattoo parlours, pubs were doing a brisk trade.
Chippenham is in a tier 1 area, meaning the pubs have been able to stay open until now. Lorna Noble, 28, the landlady of the Black Horse, was pessimistic about the weeks ahead. “It’s really hard times for us. It’s one thing after another. We had the first lockdown, then the 10pm curfew, which was a big blow for us, now lockdown again.” She has had to let half her staff go. “We’re not sure what the future holds.”
In Greater Manchester, the pubs have been shut for almost two weeks already under tier 3 measures – at least those who weren’t able to force clients to order a “substantial meal” with every pint. But the region, along with much of Lancashire and West Yorkshire, has in effect been in tier 2 since 31 July. All household mixing has been banned indoors, causing a slump in trade as the weather has turned.
In Old Trafford, Rosalyn Wilde, a construction bid manager, said little would change for her on Thursday. “For us having been in lockdown for a long time, it doesn’t really feel that different, and I am happy to grin and bear it for a few weeks if it means we have any chance of seeing family at Christmas. I do feel that if it drags on longer than the four weeks though that people will start ignoring the advice,” she said.
She thinks the country should already be in a national lockdown and that government rhetoric is not helping the widening gap between the north and south.
“The thing that annoyed me when the talks were ongoing in Greater Manchester about going into tier 3 was the constant commentary about how the rate in some parts of the country was low, so a national lockdown wouldn’t be ‘fair’.
“My two responses to that were that first, the rate in pretty much every part of the country was higher than it was in Trafford when we were put under local lockdown, and second, there was a national lockdown in March when Covid was mainly prevalent in the south with few cases ‘up north’, but none of us up here blamed those ‘down south’.”
She is still cross after a government minister only a few weeks ago justified local lockdowns by saying the rate in Cornwall was low. “I checked, and it was pretty much the same as the rate here when we were put under restrictions – that really wound me up,” she said.
In the Stockport suburb of Romiley, Shaun Rowark, a senior healthcare analyst, resented the implication that the national lockdown was only happening now because the north couldn’t get its house in order.
In the House of Commons on Monday, Boris Johnson repeatedly thanked the residents of various Tory constituencies in tier 1 for working hard to keep disease levels low, while apologising for putting them under lockdown.
“I would like to know what evidence he has that their behaviour has been better than ours,” said Rowark. “Greater Manchester has one of the biggest student populations in the country and that’s where [many] of the infections have been – it’s not because tier 3 residents are not behaving.”
Romiley is in the Conservative-held constituency of Hazel Grove, but many locals are starting to despair at the government’s approach. Johnson’s remarks were “condescending”, tutted Pat Willetts, a grandmother.
‘“Instead of congratulating parts of the country, he should be focusing on making the rules simpler so that everyone understands what they need to do,” she said. “Too much has been focused on the financial costs of lockdown rather than public health and safety, and we should have been in a national lockdown much earlier than this.”