Lockdown Log Day 483 / 258 / 197

It is being called ‘Freedom Day’ but feels no different compared to last week or last month. Sixty-nine weeks to the day since the imposition of the first lockdown here in March 2020 and the idea of lifting all Covid restrictions is being criticised far and wide. In practice, it looks likely that a number of organisations and business sectors in the UK will maintain many or all of the restrictions that have been in place for over a year now. Supermarket chains will still want us to wear masks, as will the London transport network, and the majority of people are probably going to remain sensibly cautious. They are following the data and not the date! With cases of coronavirus infection rising and hospitalisations also increasing it does nevertheless seem that the success of the vaccination rollout in this country means that at least a smaller proportion of those who contract the virus are becoming seriously unwell and the death rate is thankfully fairly low. Nevertheless, people are still getting ill and we have little knowledge yet about any possible long-term effects of having had Covid, even for those who recover from symptoms relatively quickly. What does seem certain is that a not-insignificant number could be experiencing the impacts of the coronavirus for very many months if not years, and the impacts of that on the health service will be considerable. That makes the predictions of between 100,000 and 200,000 coronavirus cases per day as a result of today’s ‘unlocking’ look very scary indeed.

Daily cases by date – 8 Jan peak approx 68,000

However, with opportunities to meet up and even share hugs with family and friends, with two vaccinations administered and with summer finally here after a miserably cold spring – in great contrast to the lovely weather that made the first months of ‘lockdown 1’ in 2020 bearable – there has been a partial lightening of the pandemic mood for many. This has, however, been tempered in the last week by news of doubly vaccinated friends going down with Covid and the awful devastation and loss of life in Europe resulting from extreme rainfall and flooding. Coupled with record-breaking temperatures and wildfires elsewhere, the list of extreme weather events and the ever-increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere make it clear that whatever measure of ‘freedom’ we may – perhaps only temporarily – experience from Covid, there is no freedom in sight from the climate crisis.

Weekly averages
4 July 2021: 417.47 ppm
This time last year: 415.43 ppm
10 years ago: 393.73 ppm
Pre-industrial base: 280
Safe level: 350

Lockdown Log Day 365 / 140 / 79

A year since the first UK lockdown was announced.

It has been difficult to know what to write over the last couple of months. Day after day has seemed much like the day before and despite the excellent news in the UK on the rollout of the Covid vaccines, this third lockdown seems to have affected people more badly than the previous periods of restriction. Talking to complete strangers up and down the country as a Royal Voluntary Service Responder on ‘Check In and Chat’ calls, I have encountered a wide range of feelings. There have been people isolated for over a year, who have scarcely been outside their own homes in all that time and yet who have remained positive, thankful for any help they receive and hopeful about the future. Their gratitude for a few minutes of conversation has been really humbling. But there have also been those who sounded depressed, anxious and fearful and where I was left wondering whether they will ever feel truly confident to be out and about again. Sadly, those in this latter group often also spoke of family members with whom they had lost touch, of broken relationships and of not being part of any local community. All I could do was listen and hope that, having shared some of their worries, they might be left feeling a little better than before, even if only for a while. Such conversations really reinforced the value of much that I had taken for granted until a year ago: being able to see and speak to family and friends online; knowing that our neighbours would be there for us if we needed help; and being able to get out of the house when the weather is good and – especially recently – enjoy the changing of the seasons.

But as my ‘log’ blog is standing instead of a diary in these strange days, I shall periodically continue to post about the situation despite the ‘sameness’ of life at present. So, on the day that marks the passage of a whole year since the introduction of the UK’s first lockdown, the reported total number of deaths where Covid appeared on the death certificate is approaching 150,000 in the UK and the number is increasing by around 2,000 each week despite the fairly dramatic fall in cases since early February. Globally, the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic is now well over two and a half million. I suspect that epidemiologists are not completely surprised by these figures and they may, indeed, have thought they would be even higher almost fifteen months on from the first confirmed cases – not having anticipated the speed with which vaccine development and approval would take place.

Daily deaths with Covid-19 on the death certificate

In other news, I was delighted to see on my most recent visit to St Albans Cathedral that the restoration work on the shrine of St Amphibalus – look him up, the story is fascinating – is now complete. I had been peeking through the observation window in the screened-off chapel month by month up to late January and had seen the amazing workmanship that was going into the new stone being carved to enhance the original fragments of the shrine. An earlier ‘restoration’ had been done in the Victorian era and brick had been used to fill in for missing pieces; it wasn’t a particularly pleasing or inspiring sight and had languished in a side aisle for many years. Now I could walk around the whole thing in its new setting and get a close-up view of some very contemporary touches that will mark the work out as being largely done in 2020. That masked ‘gargoyle’ head is only a couple of inches across and the detail is incredible.

As I write, the country is about to hold a minute’s silence to commemorate those who have died during the last year. I hope and pray that this time next year the major focus of attention will have been able to switch away from a pandemic – even if it is to the other global threat that requires just as much urgent attention. There are no vaccines against the climate crisis.

Lockdown Log Day 313 / 87 / 26

Another year, another month, another lockdown.

Lockdown 1 extended from 24 March until 4 July 2020, with some initial easing of the restrictions from mid-June – but for over fourteen weeks we were urged to stay at home in order to limit the spread of this new virus. Although that resulted in a steady downward curve in the daily death rate from its early-April peak of just over a thousand, the respite in the tragic toll, coinciding with the lifting of the lockdown, lasted only until early September. It looks very much as if the effects of the good weather – which encouraged people onto crowded beaches and generally lifted spirits so that for others caution was thrown to the winds, coupled perhaps with an ill-advised policy that actively promoted eating out – initiated a second wave of infection. By mid-November the UK death rate was back up to almost half of the April level, scarcely dropped below 400 since then, and recently exceeding that earlier high despite a second lockdown lasting for three weeks in late autumn. From 5 November until 2 December the restrictions were broadly similar to those earlier in the year, except that schools were still open and the range of retail and other outlets allowed to remain trading was slightly wider. Christmas then appears to have been a major factor in sparking a further increase in cases and associated deaths; in the weeks beforehand there was an ever-changing package of advice about the permissible level of household mixing and its duration. It is no surprise that people starved of family contact for most of the year were desperate to spend time with loved ones and no amount of government messaging about the dangers that this would pose, especially for the elderly, could persuade some people that a fairly solitary celebration was the safest option.

We appear to be on a viral rollercoaster. Has this latest lockdown, which began on 5 January, succeeded in getting the country past a second wave of Covid? It is probably too early to tell, although indications this week are that the death toll is coming down slightly, while many hospitals remain severely stretched, with expanded intensive care wards still filled to capacity; a BBC News Channel film from the Royal London Hospital last week clearly shows how near to breaking point the staff and health system are. Meanwhile the astonishingly rapid development of vaccines and an almost surprisingly successful campaign to protect the most vulnerable has already resulted in nearly eight million people in the UK having received an initial vaccination as of last Thursday, with close to half a million having already had two doses.

While these optimistic figures represent the national picture, the sight of early spring flowers struggling to remain upright under recent freezing winds, driving rain and snow storms seems strangely appropriate and close to home it is hard to escape the impression that things are actually considerably worse than they were last year. While I’ve heard of a number of friends who have now had an initial coronavirus vaccination, I am also hearing day by day about friends, neighbours, colleagues and friends of friends who have contracted Covid since the start of the year. Some have escaped with only quite mild symptoms but others have been hospitalised and some are still ill. So, while the message from much of the media is about a gradual return to ‘normality’ (whatever that now means) over coming months, I am inclined to agree with what I heard from a recent Zoom session participant, ie that it will probably be 2022 at the earliest before we should even contemplate making plans for things like attending live events, let alone travelling abroad.

I keep thinking about the civilian populations of those countries affected by the World Wars of the twentieth century: they were faced with a frightening situation, with no clear end in sight and all they could do was to make the best of it and live from one day to the next, grateful for those fighting on their behalf and thankful to have survived another year, another month, another day.

Farewell to 2020

Well, it has certainly been a strange year: back in March and April we were continually being reminded that plagues, high death tolls and quarantine restrictions were actually nothing new and the world had witnessed these things many times before. Come December and everyone has been talking about the ‘unprecedented’ year we have had. Perhaps our collective memory is short, or has been affected by a situation that few people really expected would last into the third decade of this century?

It has been a year of other contrasts as well, as we realised just how valuable are the people we have tended to take for granted: among them the nurses, cleaners, care workers, bin men, supermarket staff and taxi, bus and train drivers. While lockdowns meant that others were furloughed or switched from offices to home-based working these essential, key people carried on working so that the rest of us could make necessary journeys, eat and be cared for.

Time has both raced by and stood still. I was astonished to note that I had actually been to the cinema – more than once – and to the theatre early this year, as well as making it to Hilary Mantel’s book launch in London and to a number of other ‘real’ events. That all seems so far away now and almost unreal. When completing my 2020 memory book I was glad that I had produced the equivalent of ‘tickets’ for each of the various conferences, webinars, lectures, book launches etc that I attended – otherwise it would have been very sparse indeed after the first three months of the year. As it is, I clocked up well over 70 ‘events’, a number of which – including a packed week at the Hay Festival – I probably would not have got to in a normal year. The use of Zoom, BlueJeans, Ring Central Meetings and Microsoft Teams – all of which now reside on my desktop home screen – has changed things completely. I suspect that even after the pandemic is finally behind us there will be a lot fewer offline live events now that organisers have realised the potential of doing things virtually: much larger audiences joining from all around the world and paying a lot less each for tickets – and nothing for travel – will still be generating a sufficient if not greater profit. I am left really hoping, however, that there will be a return to some opportunities for face-to-face meetings if only because nothing can replace the thrill of a few words exchanged with a favourite author as they sign their latest book especially for you.

On the subject of books, this has been a good reading year: I have read 60 books altogether and was surprised to see as I reviewed them that only 19 were novels. Of the latter, the ones that have so far stuck with me include Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World and Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces. Stand-out titles among the other books were Rutger Bregman’s Humankind and Educated by Tara Westover. But I enjoyed everything I read and the remnants of my 2020 reading pile, plus a bumper crop of birthday and Christmas books, are already making next year look equally inviting.

There are undoubtedly many reasons to be relieved to see the back of 2020 – always assuming that the roll-out of vaccines around the world does succeed in curtailing the pandemic in the months ahead. But alongside those there are numerous reasons to remember the year with a great deal of thankfulness and with the hope that the lessons we have learned about valuing others and caring for the natural world will not be forgotten but will spur greater, better and more collaborative action to tackle all the problems that still beset so many people around the globe.

Lockdown Log Day 270 / 44

On Christmas Eve, in just under a week’s time, we will enter the tenth month since the first UK imposition of lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. While this week has seen the start of a nationwide vaccination programme – the largest in the country’s history – there have also been dire warnings from medical experts about the possible outcome of a five-day lifting of restrictions for Christmas that would allow up to three households to stay together under one roof. Common sense alone says that something risky on 22 December – hugs and kisses with family or friends you may not have seen for over nine months – will be just as risky on 23 December and so everyone is now being urged to exercise extreme caution when planning next week’s festive gatherings. The stark warning is that a longed-for reunion with a relative, especially if they are vulnerable because of age or poor health, could result in a new-year bereavement. It is a huge dilemma for those whose loved ones may be very elderly and so perhaps this Christmas, instead of thinking that it is ‘all about the children’, we should instead regard this year as being ‘all about the eldest’? What do they want to do: if they are very elderly then they may be very happy to take a risk with their own health in order to spend what might anyway be their last Christmas sharing time with their grandchildren or great-grandchildren. If so, then surely no one would want to deny them what even under ‘normal’ circumstances could be their last family Christmas?

For those of us further down the vaccination schedule, the choices may be slightly easier but there is always the risk – as has been the case throughout the pandemic – that any one of us could be the unwitting and symptom-free carrier of infection to an older person whom we encounter as part of our daily lives: the neighbour we shop for; the person behind us in a supermarket queue or in front of us on the pavement waiting to get into the post office; or the friend we wave to across a spaced-out church service as we try very hard to smile with our eyes over our facemasks. Such concerns are not unique to 2020 of course but this year they have become global and no one can avoid them. We each have to balance the immense value of social contact in terms of general wellbeing against the possible harm that such contact could cause.

It occurs to me that the Christmas story also included such hard choices. Shepherds who could have stayed on the hillside with their sheep, ignoring the angels’ message in favour of their tenuous job security; a local innkeeper who could have kept his doors firmly closed against wandering strangers; and travelling wise men who could have obeyed the local tyrannical ruler in the hope that his favour would be useful in the future. But all these people were prompted by God’s voice and, recalling perhaps that God’s word is always primarily about the good of others and not self, they risked only their own interests in seeking for something promising that offered hope and peace for others if not perhaps for them. We might all do well to follow their example this Christmas time as we look forward to a year ahead that we all hope will bring recovery and the lifting of fear from a world that has experienced widespread suffering in 2020.

And close to home, our local yarn-bombers have done a fantastic job to lift all our spirits as they have transformed a plain and uninspiring bus shelter into a warm and welcoming fireside scene in the centre of town.

Lockdown Log Day 230 / 4

We may be four days into a second England lockdown but the big news yesterday suddenly makes even that feel less dreadful. It is as if much of the world breathed a sigh of relief as Joe Biden secured enough electoral college votes to ensure that he becomes the US President-Elect, with a first ever woman US Vice-President-Elect. It is by no means all over, however, with an outgoing president who has had childish tantrums in recent days over claims that victory has been stolen from him. Even the sensible senior members of his own party are acknowledging that the only rational thing to do is to concede and bow out gracefully – but that does not seem to be something of which President Trump is capable. What the next couple of months will hold, and the implications for US–UK relations, including the trade deal currently being negotiated, we cannot yet know but with a commitment to re-enter the Paris Climate agreement and work to tackle climate change, a Biden presidency offers significant hope for a better future everywhere. This is truly something to be grateful for as the hours of daylight shorten, the weather is often grey and chilly and we still cannot hug some of our loved ones.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage many countries, the worldwide total number of cases so far is nearing 50 million, with almost 10 million in the US and close to a million in the UK. Around one and a quarter million people have died around the globe in the last ten months from this new disease. Our second lockdown, over seven and a half months since the first lockdown began back in late March, has slightly fewer restrictions than before, especially in terms of the categories of businesses that have had to close. Schools and garden centres are still open, as are hospitality outlets that can provide takeaway food and/or drink, and it is really good to see small local independent enterprises managing to survive – and perhaps even thrive – as a result of hard work and ingenuity.

Today I saw further examples of exactly this sort of hard work and new thinking as many members of my local church family gathered via Zoom for a very different Remembrance Sunday service. One of the ministers, rather than facing an assembled congregation – or a socially distanced partial congregation as has been the case in recent weeks – was instead addressing a large screen on which he could see two screenshots displaying those of us all sitting at home. While this was an extremely strange experience for him it enabled all of us to get just slightly more of a feel for being in the space than over recent months, when the view from home for Zoom church has been a close-up of preacher and lectern against a blank wall. The inclusion of video recordings of songs performed by our worship group – suitably spaced out across the church – and a corporate act of remembrance accompanied by a recording of both ‘The Last Post’ and ‘Reveille’ meant that we were all able to join with those thousands of others who will have marked today in various ways. We are very fortunate indeed to have people whose technical skills and willingness to try new things have been stretched and challenged but who have succeeded in rising to the occasion yet again.

And this reminds me that while this second lockdown may not prompt a wave on social media of daily ‘things to be grateful for’ posts, as happened earlier this year, all those medical staff and the many other key workers who helped to sustain life back then have continued to do so over an exhausting and often anxious nine months, during which many of them have lost colleagues and friends – and they deserve our gratitude no less now than when we spent part of our Thursday evenings applauding them from our doorsteps.

Lockdown Log Day 200

The UK lockdown was first announced on Monday 23 March 2020 and came into operation on the following day, making this Day 200 in this strange pandemic year. Although the nationwide lockdown was lifted back in June there have since been various reimpositions such that different parts of the UK – and different regions within the constituent countries – are currently under a whole range of different restrictions. So, I am still calling this a ‘lockdown log’ and, as the nights draw in, the wet and windy weather has undermined the incentive to take regular walks, and one day can easily blur into the next it is definitely all feeling rather like it did back in early spring. Nevertheless, I personally still have a huge amount to be grateful for: as a family, we have remained well and are all in touch with each other regularly, across the globe; three of us were able to spend a week’s holiday on the northwest coast of Scotland last month where we enjoyed fantastic scenery and surprisingly good weather; and my church family has been able to start meeting again in the church building, albeit with only a limited congregation size, social distancing and face masks. In the past few weeks I have been receiving significantly more frequent calls via the Royal Voluntary Service (RVS) GoodSAM Responder app, either to simply call and chat with isolated individuals up and down the country or to undertake local visits with items of shopping. Meeting a 90-year-old lady on her doorstep and hearing that she lives alone and has not been outside her home since February really brings home some of the significant impacts that this disease is having even on people who have avoided infection.

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With Covid-19 continuing to dominate the news, even having what may prove to be a significant influence on the outcome of the forthcoming US presidential election, it would be too easy – as it was back in March or April – to think that nothing else was really happening on the planet. That this is very far from true has been highlighted in dramatic and moving fashion by a television programme and a feature film both fronted by the nonagenarian naturalist, David Attenborough. I have yet to watch all of Extinction: The Facts but I know from friends who have that it is tough viewing and pretty upsetting. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, however, is a moving, informative and challenging documentary that provides more than sufficient evidence for humanity to begin to rewild vast areas, protect the oceans, conserve biodiversity and in so doing enhance life and health for the global human population both now and in the future. To do anything other than follow the suggested courses of action would seem to be madness – but unfortunately we are living in a mad world.

As one small example of what many see as madness, a tiny but ancient woodland is about to be destroyed in the Buckinghamshire countryside as part of the construction of the new high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham. This woodland is reputed to have provided the inspiration for one of Roald Dahl’s children’s books and there have been protesters camped there for some months. I have heard arguments on both sides regarding HS2 – that it is unnecessary, wasteful and an environmental disaster or that it is vital, that in diverting freight from the roads onto the existing railway line it will reduce carbon emissions and that the resulting new landscaping will include many additional trees. Whatever the respective merits of these arguments, I decided last week to respond to an email appeal and visit the site to offer some moral support to the protesters on the day that contractors and security teams arrived to try and evict them. It was a very mixed experience: on the one hand, the campsite of the long-term protesters was not surprisingly fairly squalid and an unwelcome intrusion into what must once have been a pristine and peaceful area; on the other, the erection of high metal barricade fencing manned by masked, helmeted security and police wearing body armour transformed the wood into some sort of militarised zone. I ended up feeling sad that a place where only birdsong should have been heard and where children could safely play and discover nature was instead spoiled by shouts, refuse and conflict.

In more light-hearted moments recently I have wondered at some of the words and phrases that may be added to the dictionary – or have their previous meanings supplemented – following the pandemic: social distancing; Covid; bubble; and ‘rule of six’, for example. And  for those who remember the craze in the 1980s and ’90s  for hanging fluffy dice from their car’s rear-view mirror (something that apparently started with Second World War pilots soon after the war), will 2020 be looked back on as the year in which we kept seeing facemasks hanging there instead?

Lockdown Log Day 171

It is almost 25 weeks since the initial lockdown was imposed in the UK and it has been something of a rollercoaster since then, with gradual easings of the restrictions on a national level interspersed with the re-imposition of lockdowns in specific local areas and nationwide regulations regarding the wearing of face coverings in all shops, on public transport and in a range of other situations. Deaths from the coronavirus in the UK have now exceeded 41,500 and – at 904,000 – are approaching the million mark worldwide. The interpretation of bald statistics is fraught with difficulty, however: the UK has recorded a fairly significant rise in cases over the last few weeks, but this is hardly surprising given that testing has become more widespread and the majority of tests will be taken by people experiencing symptoms suggestive of Covid infection. A more telling statistic, and one which is actually more reassuring, is that Covid deaths have not increased in line with the number of cases but, over the last four weeks, have remained in the range of 0-30 per day. It seems very likely that a significant proportion of the new cases have been in younger rather than older people – fuelled at least in part by mass gatherings around the exam results weeks. These younger coronavirus sufferers are statistically less likely to become seriously ill, need hospitalisation or die as a result of infection.

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What of more domestic matters? For anyone who read my last blog post and wanted an update on the cathedral pigeon situation, I can report that the following week there was no sign of said bird in the building. As far as I know, neither weaponry, more incense nor hawk was used and I suspect that it simply decided there was more chance of food outside the building. However, had it stayed – or if another stray pigeon had entered the building a couple of weeks later – it would surely have beaten a hasty retreat: on my next visit, towards the end of August, I was greeted by some fairly ear-splitting noises from the organ. One of the virgers told me that the new organ scholar was very keen and had been in since soon after 7am, practising an avant garde piece of organ music. I was slightly surprised, as the organ sounds were periodically accompanied by some muffled shouts from the organ loft – but far be it from me to disbelieve a cathedral employee! However, a while later, when I came across the head virger, I was greeted with a sympathetic smile and the explanation that this was Day 2 of organ tuning. My initial suspicions having been confirmed, I did have to carefully await suitable pauses in the organ noises a number of times that day in order to ensure that the hourly prayer could be heard throughout the building; the tuners were very obliging and as soon as they heard a voice from the pulpit they temporarily halted proceedings. While I am sure that no self-respecting pigeon would have stayed around for long, the noises did not seem to deter the steady stream of visitors who wandered around the building, relishing the intermittent peace and admiring the architecture, statuary and wall paintings.

As has been the case for many people, the pandemic has had an impact on our television viewing: we now fairly routinely eat lunch in front of the news, not because of any particular need to hear yet more about coronavirus but simply because we are both here almost every day and the TV has become a bit of a rallying point. Similarly, in the evenings: neither of us are keen on repeats of old series and with so very little in the way of new drama, we have turned increasingly to Netflix. Interesting series on the demise of the Russian imperial family and on the Medici family have been followed by something of an addiction to Designated Survivor – think of a cross between 24 and the US version of House of Cards. As well as painting a picture of what real, people-focussed and caring presidential leadership could be like (sigh), it has also provided something of an explanation regarding how Americans might quite reasonably have been suspicious about the origins of the current pandemic. The first series aired just four years ago and the third only last summer, running to a total of some 53 episodes. We are part way through series 3 and each series has featured a serious disease outbreak. There has been eerily prophetic talk of pandemics, imposing rules about distancing and wearing of face masks – even of sending in the federal guards – and as the most recent episodes feature a bio-terrorism conspiracy with genetically modified viruses I do not now find it so hard to understand why numbers of people in the US did not initially accept the facts as far as they are now known about the origins of Covid-19. It is entertaining, if slightly scary, watching and if I were an American I would really like to vote for Tom Kirkman – aka Kiefer Sutherland – as President.

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Lockdown Log Day 141

In the news that still dominates most headlines, Covid-19 cases reached a total of 20 million overnight, with deaths approaching three quarters of a million worldwide; one report estimates that one in every 2000 Americans have now died from the virus. Not only that, but within the last few hours, New Zealand – the country with probably the most outstanding success record in tackling the coronavirus – has announced that after over a hundred days with no new cases, they now have four people who have tested positive. Lockdown measures are being re-imposed, just as they have been in various parts of the UK following localised spikes in infection rates. All of this illustrates yet again that this is not something that shows any sign of going away soon – and the sooner we all get used to whatever precautions we are advised to take, the better. But it isn’t easy – and it is no surprise that there have been pockets of resistance and protest. Wearing a face mask may be only a minor inconvenience while shopping, although it does take some getting used to when wearing glasses, but it becomes quite unpleasantly claustrophobic after a number of hours on a long-distance train. With very welcome breaks to drink, eat or walk between railway stations a day’s travel to Germany a couple of weeks ago involved around six hours of mask-wearing and I was surprised to find that I could still feel a mask on my face when trying to sleep that evening, long after it was removed. And this was just one day, so what it must be like for care workers and hospital staff, I can scarcely imagine. Not only did I gain a new and even greater appreciation for some of the difficulties of their situation, but my journey was hugely rewarded by being able to hug one of my kids for the first time since mid-March. While two live fairly locally and we have seen them pretty regularly since the end of the first, most stringent, lockdown phase the rules in Germany are such that we could spend almost a week staying with our eldest and enjoying real contact. This was a great joy and privilege and another reminder of what we should not take for granted.

Back at home, I have been on duty in the cathedral three times since my last blog post and there has been a gradual increase in the number of visitors, although it remains rather quiet. In the huge open space there is no specific requirement for face covering, although a proportion of the visitors are understandably cautious; almost all the staff and volunteers are keen to be able to smile, welcome people and give their talks about the building, so covering up is not really an option. Social distancing is very much the order of the day, however; no one wants to risk being the unwitting cause of transmitting illness.

Last week, as I was about to deliver the hourly prayer from the pulpit I noticed that a haze was spreading through the centre of the building and as I drew nearer the unmistakable smell of incense became stronger. The head virger (official spelling in a small number of cathedrals – more often spelled verger) was swinging a censer vigorously back and forth in the crossing, beneath the pulpit and in the centre of the cathedral. If he had been in robes I might have wondered if there was to be a service, but as he wasn’t I did think that perhaps someone had advised that a good blast of incense smoke would aid in disinfecting the building. I was completely wrong: apparently pigeons are reported to dislike strong smells and this was simply a ploy to try and dislodge an avian visitor who was perched quite comfortably on a ledge high up in the tower! The plan failed; apparently a consultation with Westminster Abbey revealed that the latter uses a hawk to scare pigeons out of the building and an online search tells me that Rufus the Harris’s Hawk has his own website and has also been used to clear the tennis courts at Wimbledon. He must be having a quiet year, so perhaps I will be seeing him near here before long?

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Lockdown Log, Day 120

The easing of restrictions seems to have meant that it is no longer being regarded as a lockdown by some people; with the introduction of ‘local lockdowns’ where there are particular outbreaks the terminology is all becoming a bit less clear. Perhaps from here on I will have to come up with a new headline: Pandemic Ponderings?

Four months in and aspects of this situation are definitely becoming more tedious. I saw a quote a couple of weeks ago that seemed to sum it up quite well: ‘One intangible loss for many of us during the pandemic has been the ability to break up our lives – with trips, weddings, nights out – to provide shape and contrast. Without contrast, there’s no story. And without story, life can feel meaningless’ (Chris Michael, Guardian Upside 3 July 2020).

However, the last few weeks have included a number of personal milestones on this unusual 2020 journey. I have been through a friend’s house, on my way to a socially distanced tea and chat in the garden. It was wonderful to meet up with a close friend at last face to face – not too close, of course – instead of only over Zoom or, as was the case for a number of weeks, waving from a distance as we both participated in the Thursday evening applause for medical staff and care workers. I have since been inside the home of another friend, an elderly lady living in sheltered accommodation that has thankfully been spared any coronavirus cases so far. This occasion marked the first time when I felt it really was a good idea to wear a face covering, particularly for her protection, as I am out shopping most weeks. With face masks becoming mandatory in shops and supermarkets in England from later this week, I have now been doing so for about the last ten days, since this change was announced. It is awkward when wearing your glasses because they do tend to steam up, but it does appear that many people are now doing the same, although on public transport – where it has been mandatory for a while – the compliance looks to be at about fifty per cent locally. We were also able to host a family gathering in the garden recently for a birthday barbecue; having a large space and good weather made the whole event relatively easy and the only really difficult thing was not being able to have hugs with family members.

A particular highlight today was being able to get to the hairdresser’s at last. With all the staff wearing face shields – and with a great deal of hair needing to be cut in my case, including near my ears – it was impractical and appeared not to be necessary to keep a mask on; everyone was very relaxed and seemed to have adjusted to a new way of working.

We have also made a booking for a week away in the Highlands of Scotland later in the year. Everything is refundable in the event that travel restrictions are re-imposed if there is a significant upswing in Covid-19 cases but it is rather nice to have something in the diary again other than Zoom this or Zoom that for the months ahead.

I am not sure whether it is only because of the global health crisis but I have noticed that over the last few months I have not been reading fiction. It is almost as if life has taken on such a veneer of unreality that I cannot quite imagine being gripped by fiction at the moment. Instead I have been enjoying a variety of books that have included rather more ‘political’ stuff than I would usually read, including one I received last week in advance of an online event – and which I have just begun to read. Already, at thirty or forty pages in, it is proving the saying that truth is often stranger than fiction. Perhaps the measure of life becoming rather more similar to how it was last year will be that I finally get around to reading the second and third parts of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy?

And finally, as good news about progress in vaccine trials is tempered with the realism that even with an accelerated process and global co-operation, there is unlikely to be a widely available vaccine before the onset of winter, the following snippet of information should surely make those with qualms about vaccines sit up and take notice: vaccines now save more lives each year than would have been saved if there had been world peace for the whole of the twentieth century! Couple that with the statistic that the Spanish flu a century ago killed between 1% and 5.4% of the global population; if Covid-19 were to kill 1% of today’s population that would mean a total of 77 million deaths.