When Are the Grown-Ups Getting Here?

Most people have seen the pictures. The beach at Bournemouth looking like Times Square on New Year’s Eve:

The car parks were full by 10am. 558 parking fines were issued. Bournemouth, Christchurch, and Poole Council declared it a “major incident.” Police in some cases issued “dispersal notices.” Yet people stayed. There was a 3-hour backup getting into town, yet more people came, into the evening, even though Bournemouth placed signs telling people to leave.

With facilities closed and rubbish bins non-existent, this would have been a health hazard without COVID-19. According to Council leader Vikki Slade, there are other problems as well. Their police force and emergency workers are too few in number to be able to handle crowds of this size. The Council doesn’t have the power to close the beaches. Slade is not even sure what could be done. She says there are houses all along the shore, so barring access would bar residents as well. She suggests, reasonably, that signs at Waterloo and on the Motorway would stop people before they started on their journey. We’ve also seen this in action in other situations. Last summer, my husband and I were coming back to London from the Cotswolds on the M4 when we noticed that all the electronic signs were announcing that Legoland was full. It was a bank holiday Monday and glorious weather, so, just like this past weekend when record numbers of people headed to Bournemouth, a lot of parents were taking their kids to Legoland. Recognizing that they’d be awfully disgruntled if they made the entire trip and arrived to a “No Admittance” sign, Legoland management evidently got permission to avert the problem. If a corporation could do this, it makes me wonder about Bournemouth Council. Maybe they can’t close the beaches, but couldn’t they work with Highways England’s control centre and ask that notices be put up? It seems to me Slade is the first one on the chain of people in government who would rather pass the buck than figure out a plan that works.

At any rate, the government proved that it was no more capable of doing anything than Slade was. Not only that, at least one minister, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs George Eustice, seems a little weak in his knowledge of how the virus is spread. A claim he made more than once on BBC breakfast (and nobody challenged him) is that symptoms of the virus generally appear within 2-3 days. No. That is one of the reasons this virus spreads so easily. According to the World Health Organization (and everyone else), symptoms generally appear within 5-6 days and can take as long as 2 weeks. During that time, they can still spread the virus. Moreover, what we know currently suggests that most people don’t get symptoms or their symptoms are so minor that they don’t even notice them or connect them to COVID. So the idea that we’ll know if the crowded beach caused a “serious outbreak” in 2-3 days is absurd. Health Secretary Matt Hancock, in an interview on talkRadio, says a lot of things about the need for social distancing and the virus not respecting that it’s a nice day, then undermines it all by saying that he’s reluctant to enforce measures because “people have had a pretty tough lockdown … and everybody should be able to enjoy the sunshine.” He goes on to say that “outside is better than inside,” so it’s almost like a code that he doesn’t really think what happened in Bournemouth is that serious:

Here are the problems with the government’s “softly softly” approach to managing our way out of lockdown. First, the UK is still not doing as well in terms of numbers as other Western European countries. They’re doing better than the US, which has a leader who thumbs his nose at any kinds of regulations, but when I hear ministers talking about “air bridges”[1] with other European countries, as long as “their numbers remain low,” I think, “Aren’t we the bigger problem? Are you sure they want to have air bridges with us?”

This particular case is a lot like the mask-wearing debate that’s occurring here and even more vehemently in the United States. The people who don’t want to wear masks when they’re in crowds have already proved that they are a little low on both common sense and a sense of responsibility to the community as a whole. As we know, your mask helps me, my mask helps you. In this case, you have people who, even when traffic came to a standstill for hours, still were determined to go to that beach. When they got there and saw the crowd, they didn’t say “Eww! That’s no fun.” They parked illegally and headed for the water (and presumably peed in the water, since there were no toilet facilities and they’d been in the car for hours). What in the world makes you think that they will suddenly grow mature brains? So now we’re going to rely on the very qualities they’ve shown themselves to be lacking.

The other problem is this really wrongheaded notion that if we see a spike in Bournemouth, we’ll know it’s a result of the beach crowds. Are politicians just being lazy? Not willing to admit what a joke their track and trace system is? Almost all of the people on those beaches came from somewhere else. You saw the angry locals fuming, but they stayed away. The virus is not likely to stay on the beach very long when the crowds disburse, so it’s really unlikely that locals will be affected in big numbers. Instead, people on the beach will go back to their communities, all over the place, and maybe introduce the virus in their grocery store, where people are also advised but not required to wear masks. Since the dates for actual infection are a good deal later than Mr. Eustice seemed to think, it will be one or two more weekends before the real spike occurs, and that will be throughout the country, so it won’t be at all apparent that it occurred in Bournemouth, and while it might start an upward trajectory, it won’t be big enough in the greater population to ring those alarm bells. Also, probably, if those people were mostly young, the second group that’s infected because the first group was asymptomatic will appear as long as a month from now. And guess what? Non-essential shops, some of which have mask rules in place (and at least we don’t see people here shooting security guards who ask them to wear masks) but some of which don’t, have just opened. Pubs and restaurants are slated to open on the 4th of July, and even though there are rules in place, people who thought it was a good idea to go to the beach are probably not going to be too particular about those rules in a restaurant or a pub. Hairdressers are going to start cutting hair. We are all going to be out and about more, and what we have to rely on is that some dopes who thought it would be a good idea to go to the beach will have the good sense to isolate themselves if they get sniffles. And we will keep the beaches open with no controls over the next month because we will not have seen the spike yet, which means our only hope is that the weekends are rainy and cold.

Conservatives are the law and order people, the people who thrive on making people follow their rules. Why have they been so weak in the establishment and enforcement of intelligent rules? Is it because enforcement would require them to expose their own failings? A “state of the art” track and trace system that’s a joke? The top adviser breaking lockdown? Even without a decent track and trace system, though, surely by now we can recognize likely ways for the virus to flourish. I think by now, we can say that there are a lot of people out there, all over the world, who don’t understand virus transmission or even simple hygiene. But most Brits will follow laws if there’s a penalty. Right now, the people on the beach are being lazy and stupid, and receiving mixed messages from the government. Their stupidity is different from that of people in the US who seem to think that it’s against their constitutional rights to ask them to practice social distancing or wear a mask or not go to concerts—and who also have a leader who is openly questioning common-sense measures. I still feel more secure in the UK government’s desire to get things right and the UK people’s willingness to follow clearly explained measures than I do when I see what’s going on in different parts of the US. I still have some hope that the British government can get its act together. Since I saw quite a few “Britain proves itself the world’s biggest moron” posts on Facebook this week, I thought I’d leave you with a video that explains why I, as an American, even after this week, am still more nervous about what will happen in the US than I am about the UK. This woman is particularly passionate, but I have heard most of her arguments from other people in the US. I don’t even know how I would get people to come together in the US right now, but I do know that the President is not trying to get people together, instead widening the divide and distrust.


[1] Agreements by which residents of countries with low COVID numbers could travel freely without quarantine between those countries

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