The Fight for Normalcy Begins Now

As I sit here, mourning the loss of another term-time Saturday night to the clutches of Perfidious Lockdown Monster that we’ve all heard so much about this past year, I find myself fearing Monday, and not for the usual reasons. If vaccinations have provided us with a light at the end of the tunnel, then February 22ndis the date on which we’ll find out how long that tunnel is, as our increasingly shaggy-haired Prime Minister plans to set out the Government’s “roadmap” for the end of lockdown restrictions. As exciting as it might be to think about a return to a time when one could Do Things, Go To Places, and See People, ancient activities almost now lost to time, I worry that the past year has taught the Government all of the wrong lessons about how to handle our national normalization. The word of the day is ‘over-caution’. It’s important, of course, to be cautious, in any endeavour of this scale. We must also be able to respond to changing circumstances appropriately, particularly when not doing so imposes difficulties on others. The vaccinations, and the efficacy of this third lockdown, are a real, material change of circumstances that any competent policymaker would recognize as warranting a significant change in approach. The media’s approach to the pandemic, one of ruthless and persistent criticism, has taught the government’s PR boffins that it’s always better to under-promise and over-deliver than to give a fair account of the risks and rewards. It’s a shame that they’re only learning this now, when such an approach will manufacture consent for a continuation of these regulations past the point of sense. By the beginning of Easter Term, April 27th, the Government will have offered a first vaccine dose to all over-50s and all clinically vulnerable people – indeed, the plan is to have this done by April 15th. These groups account for 99% of preventable Coronavirus deaths, and after just one vaccine dose, the data that we have so far from this country and others suggests that hospitalizations and severe cases of the disease disappear almost entirely. By April, if the government remains as logistically effective as it has so far on vaccines, there will be few deaths, and almost no serious cases of the disease. If the 7-day rolling average of deaths falls between now and April at the same rate that it has since February 1st, we’re looking at something in the ballpark of 50 deaths a day by Easter Term. That ignores the possibility of an intensified vaccine impact – so, in other words, this is a conservativeestimate, and chances are good that we will be seeing fewer than 50 deaths a day, on average. On this basis, we will continue to be deprived of many of the things that make life worth living, having them handed back to us piecemeal, as the gulf between the public health risks and the reality of restrictions grows ever more apparent. Does this not seem ridiculous – increasingly so, in fact? The effects of this past year on students has been particularly keenly felt. Asked to carry out the same work, with the same regularity, to the same quality, while cooped up in bedrooms, deprived of easy access to learning resources, and without the social relief necessary to counterbalance the stresses of work is profoundly unhealthy. This has been the reality, for most of us, for nearly a year. The over-caution which will dictate the Government’s loosening of restrictions will likely filter down into over-cautious policymaking in our colleges and our faculties, a grim continuation of many colleges’ excessively restrictive Michaelmas rules. If excessively hand-wringing policymaking divorced from the reality of the situation for students is a tendency anywhere, it’s in our college administrations. So, if we don’t want to lose yet another year of what are, I am told, “the best years of your life”, Cambridge Students of all types will have to stand up and push for normalization in every conceivable forum. Over-caution is understandable, given how difficult the last year has been, but without any counterbalancing pressure, over-caution quickly turns into sluggishness and inaction, for which we will all suffer. In our JCRs, in our messages to tutors and supervisors, in our correspondence with the Student Union and Senior Tutors, we should be asking not for token tweaks, but for rules to be applied as loosely as is legally possible, and that those rules that must exist be removed as soon as legally possible. Normalcy does not mean being confined to our rooms, squinting at screens, paying rent to eat, sleep, and study in the same few square feet – it means things as they were before. If there are not insurmountable practical boundaries to offering as many face-to-face contact hours as normal, then we should do so – and should be demanding that our various faculties to keep this in mind now, rather than complaining about it once term commences. If formals and Evensong can be held, they shouldbe – so, too, speaking events, Union panels in the Chamber, and the other things that make our university experience special. If reasonable policy is not put forward, then it will be incumbent on students to create an atmosphere as close to normalcy as legally possible. The real risk now is that we all let the next few years pass us by, accepting the suffocation of our social lives and mental wellbeing in the name of an increasingly minor public health crisis. I am aware that it is never sensible to write about Coronavirus. The situation has changed many times, and it will do so again, I am sure. If we trust in data though, and trust that our medicinal regulators have done their jobs properly, the situation has changed materially, and in light of this, we should no longer tolerate these capricious restrictions, which make us all so unhappy, and prevent us from properly sharing in the joys of this excellent University and its vibrant social life. Our attitude should now be that anything beyond the minimum legal requirements is an insensible infringement on our ability to live as people are supposed to. We must make this loud and clear before term begins, and before policies are published, or else our concerns will be ignored as they have been for the past year.