Darren Grimes: The frustration, bafflement and despair that the lockdown is forcing on my family and friends in the North-East

7 Oct

Darren Grimes is a political commentator and is content creator at Reasoned UK.

I feel the need, somewhat depressingly, to preface this piece by saying that I am no denier of Covid-19.  I do not believe that it is some grand conspiracy involving billionaire philanthropists such as Bill Gates, or lizard men; like most others, I got on board with the original nationwide lockdown until we could build up healthcare resilience, mask wearing and social distancing.

I believ thate deaths from this virus matter. I just don’t believe they matter more, or less, than any other deaths. As three eminent epidemiologists that advocate a different approach have said elsewhere, our current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health, such as:

“Lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden.”

It’s that last part which struck me the most. Each generation of my family in the North-East (I grew up in Consett, County Durham) is now united in their opposition to the current restrictions. For a moment, it looked as though my 86-year-old nana was ready to take a pitchfork to Westminster upon hearing that bingo was closing again. My mother works in higher education, and doesn’t know if she’s coming and going most days. My two younger siblings are left feeling a sense of hopeless and despair that I am not ashamed to admit brings me close to tears.

And for what? We’ve seen that some of the biggest spikes in cases are in places with some of our countries biggest universities, such as Exeter, Nottingham, Manchester and, of course, Newcastle. But surely the Government knew that this problem was coming, and could have prepared for the eventuality of students heading to the North East for the next academic year?

The unspoken tragedy for my friends, at a time when we hear so much about white privilege, is that it is the working class and younger members of society, regardless of skin colour, that are carrying the heaviest burden of our response to Covid-19. So it’s the North East’s young people that will suffer as a consequence of this whack-a-mole lockdown strategy.

Both of my siblings, one of whom has just started a degree in Newcastle, supported the Conservatives last year, in their first election in which they were entitled to vote. Both of them are exactly what the levelling-up agenda should be about. But they’re current both unemployed – with he youngest receiving precious little in-person teaching as part of his first year at university. So this lockdown strategy reminds us just how out-of-touch policymakers are when it comes to the North East.

We hear a lot about the Red Wall as though it were one homogenous mass. The North East itself covers a huge area – from densely populated industrial parts to sparsely populated ones containing more sheep than people. The North East is much more than Newcastle, Sunderland and Gateshead. Yet the lockdown measures that have been put in place don’t currently reflect this and feel really unfair to some.

Under the rumoured “three-tier” system to simplify lockdown rules in England, the country would see just three sets of rules and restrictions. Tier one would apply to areas with fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 population, meaning they’d have to stick to national restrictions. And tier three would apply to areas with high rates, and so would see full lockdowns imposed. Under this scenario, my County Durham family would see the rules that apply to them relaxed.

Many of my friends and family tell me that they’re at their wits’ end. In June, I went back home for the funeral of my youngest aunt, and the family were, naturally, a bit cautious that I was travelling up from London for it, and asked that I keep away from my grandmother.

My grandmother, true to herself, was having absolutely none of it, and fumed at the idea that her agency should be stripped from her, and that she be unable to hug her grandson at such a time. At the funeral itself, my mother sat with my hurting grandmother and refused to sit away from her: it was the right thing to do for both of us.

A video of a similar scene in which this wasn’t allowed to happen has gone viral online. For many this highlights the  cruelty in our rules which say that it’s fine to sit next to your elderly mother on public transport, but not at a funeral. These deeply human tragedies highlight the perniciousness and inconsistencies.

I’ve had conversations with several older friends and family members, of a similar age to a certain American President, who make clear thatm whilst they reckon they’re in decent enough nick to survive the virus as our understanding of it grows, they’re too terrified to leave the house fearing that they’ll get some new rule or regulation wrong. They fear a bankrupting fine or, worse, that one of their neighbours that has taken it upon themselves to become the town prefect.

Voters in the North East just want to know if they’re coming or going. They want rules that are proportionate for the threat that we face and they don’t want to see, whatever the risk that they may or may not pose, the livelihoods and life chances of their nearest and dearest destroyed in the most disproportionate way possible.

I’m afraid, Boris Johnson, that the promise of a few wind turbines by 2030 simply won’t soften the hammer blow to the life chances of our region’s young.