Keeping up with lockdown rules in Greater Manchester has become a full-time job. On Tuesday, casinos and soft-play centres reopened everywhere except Bolton. Later that same day, pubs in Bolton were closed. You can’t meet other households in your house or garden, unless you live in Stockport or Wigan. You also can’t meet them in pubs or restaurants unless you sit outside, in which case it’s fine, unless you live in Oldham, in which case it isn’t. Restrictions were lifted last Wednesday for Trafford, where I live, until suddenly, 12 hours later, they weren’t. From tomorrow, along with the rest of the country, socialising in groups of more than six will become illegal.
If the government had tried to design a lockdown that was bound to fail, it could scarcely have done a better job. The rules are now so convoluted that they are nigh-on impossible to understand: they seem to change almost daily, with no serious effort to communicate these changes. Worst of all, they simply don’t make sense to people. Children can go to school but can’t visit their friends? I can go to the pub but not see my mum in my garden?
The tone was set when Matt Hancock first announced the restrictions on Twitter at 9pm the night before Eid. I found out from my sister-in-law, who I’d arranged to meet the next day. At 10.45pm, we got a text saying she was no longer allowed to come to our house. I thought she must have got it wrong: the rules had never changed with such short notice before. Half an hour later, another text. “Well, since we last spoke it has also become illegal to meet in your garden,” my sister said. “So I guess it’s the park.” For us, changing plans was fairly painless. For those who’d already travelled and prepared food for Eid, it would have been heartbreaking.
Then there’s the doublethink of having new restrictions imposed at the same time the government is aggressively exhorting us to get back to normal. We could no longer meet friends at home, yet Rishi Sunak actively subsidised us to go out for a burger. Things were dangerous enough to put our family lives on hold, but safe enough that we should all be going back to the office. The government insisted there was no contradiction here, since the problem was people not distancing in their own homes. Yet now Bolton pubs have been shut down after being linked to a cluster of outbreaks.
Inevitably, all this has led to widespread non-compliance. “People are just doing what they want, they’re fed up with the changes all the time,” one person told me. “I don’t know anyone who’s given it the slightest bit of notice,” said another. The government is asking people to sacrifice things that they really care about while actively encouraging them to do things they don’t really care about. It is doing so in a cavalier and disrespectful way that doesn’t even try to empathise with how difficult these sacrifices might be. Meanwhile, its defence of Dominic Cummings is etched in people’s memories: breaking the rules for the sake of your family is not only fine, it’s what any good person would do. It doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to work out that this is not a winning combination.
The truth is that there is simply no logic to the government’s position. It is not taking any serious responsibility either for protecting the north-west’s economy or for protecting its public health. Instead, it bombards us with a constant flurry of contradictory demands and leave us to navigate the resulting mess. We are now told the virus is endemic in deprived areas, with poor housing and risky work largely to blame. Yet six months into the pandemic, the government has still not ensured that people in these areas can afford to self-isolate. The national testing system is descending into chaos. I spoke to the single mum of a disabled child who was sent to Wallasey, more than 30 miles away, before discovering via a friend that she could get a test with no appointment at a centre just round the corner. “The staff asked us to spread the word that they are there,” she said. Farcical doesn’t begin to cover it.
As ever, the government seems more comfortable handing down edicts from on high than actually making it possible to follow them. By constantly fine-tuning rules that hardly anyone understands and fewer still are observing, it is pulling levers that aren’t connected to anything. The cynical view is that the government knows this, but at least it allows it to pass the buck. If cases spike, it’s because we weren’t careful enough – with increasingly ugly finger-pointing at racial minorities. If the economy tanks, it’s because we were too careful.
Trying to do the right thing has become emotionally exhausting. On hearing that the Trafford lockdown was due to lift, we made plans for my one-year-old son to finally see his grandparents, only to cancel them a few days later. With restrictions clearly not working and cases rising, it’s increasingly hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
It’s starting to feel like March all over again – except this time, a sense of shared purpose and solidarity has given way to exhaustion, confusion and resentment. If we really are at the start of a second wave, with national restrictions tightening again and local lockdowns multiplying, our experience could be a bellwether for what’s about to hit the rest of the country. If so, it’s going to be a rough few months.
• Christine Berry is a researcher, writer and consultant