Spending lockdown in a supermarket carpark
We are now eight weeks into lockdown, and the UK’s political leaders will need to be very careful how they proceed.
Our leaders must manage public expectations and keep the population safe, while ensuring that they country does not grind to a halt. For Boris Johnson, that means explaining the new lockdown rules. For Nicola Sturgeon, in contrast, it means ensuring the public understand why the Scottish Government has not taken the same steps. Trust will be critical, and it is no exaggeration to say this may be the greatest challenge any of them will ever face.
But the good news is that, having recently left the flat for the first time in days, I believe I gained a powerful new insight into the challenges facing our leaders.
I’d been out shopping, and it had gone well. The public complied with social distancing. The sun shone outside. I bought biscuits. But when I went back to the car, the battery had gone dead. I was trapped, in my own lockdown hell. I was trapped in Aldi carpark.
Now, the two situations are obviously not identical. I realise that. Nicola Sturgeon, for example, is trying to manage a country through a pandemic, while I, on the other hand, was trying to convince a stranger to help me jump-start my car, while staying two metres away and not touching anything.
It was a tricky one, so I decided to take inspiration from our Prime Minister, who, just days before, had warned people were “fearful of this terrible disease” but at the same time, they are “fearful of what this long period of enforced inactivity will do to their livelihoods and their mental and physical wellbeing”.
This was very much how I felt. I too was fearful of what inactivity would mean for my wellbeing. It would mean starting a new life in Aldi carpark. I needed to protect the public, and myself, by staying away from the customers, but equally, I couldn’t stay in a Portobello budget supermarket carpark forever. That’s no way to live your life.
But clearly this is a worrying time, and, like Dominic Cummings, I realised that messaging was key. Yet the UK Government has faced fierce criticism over its new slogan – ‘stay alert, control the virus, save lives’ – with Nicola Sturgeon describing the message as “vague and imprecise”, before adding more bluntly, “I don’t know what that means”.
I was keen to avoid the same problems, so I asked myself, what would Nicola Sturgeon do? After that I decided to remove the tangerine and black Dundee United scarf I had wrapped around my head. I’d never seen the FM wearing one and allowing people to see my face might build trust, I felt.
Next, I assessed public mood. I had to choose carefully. One person panicking at my approach might set off a stampede, after all. For Johnson and Sturgeon, that assessment will also be key. Clearly lockdown cannot go on forever, and eventually public patience may wear thin. In fact it looks as though the two may have different judgements on that score, with Sturgeon obviously reluctant to move to ease restrictions, despite the clear need to allow people to return to work.
It’s an impossible choice. You can’t end lockdown without putting people’s health in danger – at least until there is vaccine – but the longer it goes on, the greater the economic consequences. The FSB has already predicted that a third of Scottish small businesses that have shut may never re-open, and the longer the lockdown continues, the more likely it is that jobs will be lost and livelihoods put at risk. More children pushed into poverty, more lives limited. That has health consequences too.
Meanwhile, back in the carpark, time was also critical for me, though not for the same reasons. I had ice cream in the boot. No, I had to act, and act fast. Fortunately a young man arrived, showing no visible sign of underlying health conditions, and I pounced. He agreed to help, with no fuss, while carefully avoiding touching the jump leads.
So actually, the whole thing was pretty easy. Jump starting society again though, well, that’s a different matter.