It was just after lunch on Monday, the very day the lockdown restrictions began to ease, that queues of cars formed outside my house. They are queueing still. I haven’t seen tailbacks like it for two years, when they closed the roads for the last Tour de Yorkshire.
The heaviest traffic is usually reserved for sunny weekend mornings, when families flee the suburbs for a day out in the Dales – but this time the flow has been in the opposite direction.
Perhaps everyone has lost their sense of direction whilst being driven stir crazy at home; more likely they just want to be out, and anywhere is better than nowhere.
By Tuesday, as the sun beat down and the temperature rose to a veritably tropical 16 degrees, the riverbank at Burley-in-Wharfedale was swarming. A gardener told me that someone from Manchester had stopped him and asked for directions to “Burley Beach”, having evidently not realised that Wharfedale is 75 miles inland. It was a sign, if one were needed, of the toll the pandemic has taken on so many of us who have survived it physically – and of our need to break free.
Down the road in Otley, signs have gone up in some of the pub windows. Come rain or shine, they proclaim, their beer gardens will be open for business a week on Monday. The shops will also reopen that day and high streets will bustle more, perhaps, than for some time. Seldom has the prospect of universal gridlock been so welcome.
Yet not every door will reopen, nor everyone have cause to celebrate. Across from one pub, a letting agent with an office there told me of the calls he was taking daily from tenants who could no longer afford their rent. Most, he said, worked in retail or hospitality – for Debenhams, John Lewis or one of the countless smaller shops, pubs and restaurants that have not survived the lockdown unscathed. The numbers of these economic victims cannot yet be counted, but, as this newspaper reports today, many have fallen through the net of Government support and have had to go cap-in-hand to their families to see them through.
Three days earlier, the Resolution Foundation think-tank had said the country was poised for a decade of “unprecedented economic change” in ways it could not yet predict, as the outcomes of both Covid and Brexit unfolded. Vaccines, said the organisation’s chief executive, Torsten Bell, were only the beginning of the solution.
At the same time, the Prime Minister was cautioning that in welcoming a relaxation of the rules, further dangers lay ahead from an expected third wave of infections sweeping across from Europe. The UK, he said, had to defend itself.
In the short term, this means that most summer holidays this year will be spent on our own shores – staycations, to use the industry jargon. That is welcome, obviously, for the hospitality trade but good also for the rest of us – for if you can ignore the unpredictable weather, Britain is one of the best holiday destinations in the world and Yorkshire arguably the best in Britain.
Indeed, the annual tourism conference staged this week by Welcome To Yorkshire was more buoyant about the industry than anyone would have thought – at least for those who remain part of it.
But what will happen when summer is over? Will we be allowed to rebuild quickly or will the future be put on hold once more to stem the tide of new infections? If so, will the new restrictions be as indiscriminate as last time, or might politicians dare to target the people most likely to spread the virus? Those who have refused vaccinations, for example.
The NHS too will face uncertainties. No-one wants, and few will tolerate, another period of hunkering down to protect it. If it is to remain a national treasure and not become a millstone, its administrators will have to adapt to society, not vice versa.
It is fitting that this weekend of resurrection should mark the beginning of our transition from a world in lockdown to one learning to come to terms with the limits of its new normality. One day we will review the period we are about to enter – and when we do, we may not be able to escape the conclusion that while the virus itself was bad, the collateral damage was far worse.
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