When no good options remain, we may only choose the least terrible

Lockdowns are shit.

That might seem like a ridiculously obvious thing to say, but there are those out there who seem to think that people exist who think of them as an extended holiday, a little jolly where we get to sit at home in our jammies all day watching Netflix, a chance to bunk off and collect that lovely, free government money, so it bears making this very simple point clear at the outset: lockdowns are fucking shit. They amplify inequality, damage mental health, place vulnerable people at risk, decimate businesses and isolate members of minority communities from the essential support networks on which they rely. They are so perniciously harmful that no one in their right mind would be suggesting any kind of lockdown, much less the strict nationwide lockdown so many are now calling for, if it wasn’t absolutely essential.

There are, of course, ways to mitigate the harms caused by lockdowns: locking down early enough and strictly enough that the duration is kept to an absolute minimum, providing adequate financial support to individuals and businesses affected by the measures, a comprehensive plan to provide distance or blended learning in the hope of minimising the deleterious effects on those in full-time education, effective test, trace and isolate programmes, and clear, honest communication designed to bring the public along with any unavoidable disruption to their lives, rights and freedoms. Not ripping the arse out of mental health provision for a full decade prior to the commencement of any such restrictions might also be helpful, but here we are.

The sad fact is, our government has singularly failed to adopt any of these mitigation strategies since the very start of this pandemic. Both the first and second lockdowns took place weeks after scientists were calling for them to be implemented. Financial support has been deliberately – maliciously, even – inadequate, with many people cut adrift from the limited help available, and the government having to be shamed into doing the bare fucking basics like feeding hungry children, on two separate occasions, by a footballer. Eat out to help out, the rush to reopen schools and universities, the steadfast unwillingness to close them again even after it became clear that they were a significant source of community transmission, the threats to ‘get back to work or lose your jobs’, the persistence with the tier system of local restrictions that scientists warned would be ineffective before it was introduced and which was later shown to be just that, the staggering, face-melting stupidity of the Christmas super-spreader event; this government has failed at every turn to protect the public from the virus, and to minimise the need for, and duration of, further lockdowns.

The situation with schools is particularly worrying. And again, before I go any further, let me be abundantly clear: school ‘closures’ are also shit. I used the word ‘closures’ in inverted commas because the reality is that the schools have never been ‘closed’. They have always been open to the children of key workers and vulnerable children, which is as it should be. But to keep them open to all students at this stage of the pandemic is an act of criminal negligence that will serve only to increase transmission and cause thousands more deaths.

Of course no one wants schools to close (or, more accurately, to move to distance learning for an extended period of time). My son, who is very vocally Not A Fan of school, would still rather be there than separated from his friends for months on end, learning from a computer in his bedroom. During the first lockdown, he became progressively more miserable and withdrawn, despite our best efforts to prevent this, and it was heartbreaking to see. He returned to physical school attendance in September, and from a social point of view, it was obviously a huge improvement. We took him back into a remote learning environment last November when it became clear that everything was starting to go very badly sideways again, and although we took this decision with his consent, he still fucking hates it. The thing is, however, he hates it considerably less than he would hate me or his mother, who both have underlying conditions, becoming seriously ill or dying.

Closing schools and universities now is a no-brainer. It’s a shitty, horrible option that is still considerably better than the shittier, even more horrible alternative.

We now stand at a precipice. A variant of Covid somewhere between 50 and 70% more transmissible than the original strain is now tearing across the country unchecked. The graph of confirmed infections is more or less a straight, vertical line and hospital admissions have already exceeded the level of the last peak in April. Due to a better understanding of the disease and greater awareness of how to treat it, the number of daily deaths hasn’t quite caught up to the horrendous levels of the first wave, but they’re not far off, and they will get there, whatever we do next. A full, strict, UK-wide lockdown will almost certainly be insufficient to prevent a recurrence of the horrors of last spring, and we could still reach the stage where the NHS is unable to treat some Covid patients, even with those measures in place. This will also have a knock-on effect to routine care and other critical care, causing an increase in excess ‘non-Covid’ deaths as a result.

The strain on NHS staff now is unimaginable. Many are off sick, either with Covid-19 or related exhaustion from having to work 80+ hours a week over an extended period to cover for their stricken colleagues. Some are reporting conditions akin to, or virtually identical to, PTSD, and beds, together with the human beings needed to staff those beds, are quickly running out. All of which is likely to create a domino effect that will claim tens or even hundreds of thousands of lives. This remains true even if we act now. Today.

If we do not act now, if we delay or prevaricate or dither for another moment, we risk this disease getting completely, irretrievably out of control. Every day we fail to act is another day where more than 50,000 people (that we know about) contract the virus. Given that, in most areas, you can only book a Covid test if you are displaying symptoms, the real number is almost certainly significantly higher. And with the R-rate well above 1, this 50,000 symptomatic cases will grow to 100,000 and beyond in a very short space of time. If the hospitalisations and deaths grow proportionately alongside that, we will be in a very dark place indeed.

We have a vaccine available. Two, in fact. That is the only good news to emerge out of any of this, but vaccines alone are not sufficient to prevent what undoubtedly awaits us should we fail to take the drastic action needed to reduce the unrestrained spread of this lethal new variant. The government must act now, in partnership with devolved administrations, to implement a full lockdown of the entire UK, to move schools and universities online, to ban most flights in or out of the country, to close all non-essential retail, hospitality and entertainment venues, and, crucially, to provide the support, financial or otherwise, needed for us to emerge safely at the other side when the vaccine rollout is complete.

It’s going to be shit because, as I think I mentioned, lockdowns are really, really fucking shit. But when you’re faced with an inescapable choice between a kick in the balls/minge (delete as appropriate) or a bullet in the head, all you can do is spread your legs, brace yourself, and look forward to the day when you’ve recovered from the damage in a way that would not be possible if you opted for the alternative.

Episode 19

Max catches up with infectious disease doctor and presenter of CBBC’s ‘Operation Ouch’, Dr Chris Van Tulleken, about recent developments in the Covid-19 pandemic, children returning to school and what we can expect to see happening with C19 in the future. This episode contains no strong language, and is suitable for younger listeners.

Pride 2020: The loss of a lifeline

This year will be the first year since the 1970s when, in all likelihood, there will be no Pride events taking place anywhere in the UK.

You might think this is a relatively minor consideration, and I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, it is. Somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 people have already died, and many thousands more will die before this is over. Millions have been plunged even further into poverty as this crisis gives them an additional kicking after ten years of Tory austerity, and yet more people will die as a result of this secondary impact of the virus. The mental health toll of the lockdown – being separated from friends and family, being forced to isolate with an abusive partner or family member, worrying whether you’ll keep your home or your livelihood when this is all over (if you survive at all) – is now beginning to bite, and will only get worse as this situation drags on.

So for those of you outside of the LGBTQ community, whether or not Pride events are held as planned is probably so far down your list of priorities that it doesn’t even begin to register. Pride is, I think, largely viewed by straight people as little more than a party. A day out. A piss-up. A colourful parade. A Britney concert.

And yes, for better or for worse, it is all of those things. But for many of us, it’s so much more than that.

Even now, in 2020, in the post-equal-marriage era, we still face a relentless tide of homophobia. Those of you who follow my Twitter account will know that I regularly receive responses calling me a ‘faggot’ or a ‘puff’ (literacy was never their strong point), or encouraging me to ‘slit my throat’. Some of the more considerate ones even offer to slit it on my behalf, which, I think we can all agree, shows a selfless commitment on their part to ridding the world of the scourge of The Gay.

Sadly, though, it’s not just online that we face intolerance. Thousands of young queer people still live in households where they are not accepted for who they are, where they face the choice of continuing to reside with those who despise their very nature, or joining the disproportionately large number of young LGBTQ people sleeping on the streets.

Trans people are now routinely vilified in the press, in public and on social media. This has become as ubiquitous and predictable the seemingly proud betrayal of sociopathic tendencies in a Donald Trump press conference. Transphobia is the acceptable face of 21st century bigotry. It’s not subtle or hidden, it’s just relentless and pervasive and viciously fucking unpleasant. You could justifiably speculate that an existential crisis like a global pandemic might have given these vindictive arseholes cause to think, “Maybe I’ll take a day off from being an unremitting shit while vast numbers of people are dying,” but sadly, such ostensibly reasonable thoughts never seem to enter their heads. Their dehumanising bandwagon rolls ever-onwards, unencumbered as it is by unwelcome and unnecessary considerations like ‘decency’, ‘compassion’, and ‘not being a cunt for five minutes’.

None of these problems are new, of course. They’ve existed in some form since the moment at which bronze age homophobes decided to attribute their anti-queer bigotry to the god they’d recently created. But in these most difficult of times, when LGBTQ people are facing all of the physical, emotional and financial issues cis-het people are facing, they present an added burden to people who, like the rest of you, are already fast-approaching breaking point.

Even those of us who have it comparatively easy, who don’t face homelessness or rejection by our immediate families, still face difficulties that simply wouldn’t occur to most straight, cis people: abuse and prejudice continuing unabated while we’re struggling with the day-to-day worry of all this, further delays to already indefensibly long waiting times for life-saving transition treatment, being cut off, not just from our immediate communities, but from those with whom we are able to truly be ourselves in a way that’s often impossible in any other scenario.

From a purely personal perspective, I know I’m very fortunate. I came out to amazing support from most of my friends, my wife and my son. My housing situation, though not entirely without risk given the perilous economic situation in which we find ourselves, is reasonably secure.

That said, I live in an area with a relatively small LGBTQ population, and with no recognised ‘gay area’ like you might find in London, Brighton or Manchester. So the opportunities to be around others like myself, to mix with people who are less likely to judge me for who I am, are quite limited, even in normal times. I attended Pride in London with some friends last year, one of whom observed that the ‘safe zone’ – that little cocoon in the heart of Soho where you’re less likely to face physical violence for public displays of same-sex affection – had been extended for a day. This was sharply observed, but it’s worth noting that, for many of us in towns and cities outside of London, there is no ‘safe zone’. It simply doesn’t exist.

I’m also, of course, still in a ‘straight’ marriage, and whilst I recognise that this is completely my choice, it brings with it its own unique set of challenges. My circumstances lead those who don’t know me to routinely assume – understandably, I suppose – that I am straight. I’m then faced with two equally poor options: play along and hide my true self as I have done for most of my life, or come out yet again and face the barrage of intrusive questions, raised eyebrows and disingenuous ‘sympathy’ for my poor, put-upon wife.

More often than not, I choose the former option because it’s just easier than fielding enquiries like, “How does that work?” and “Do you still sleep in the same bed?” and the never-not-tiresome, “Is she allowed to see other guys?” But having to make this decision over and over again, and having to deal with whichever shitty set of consequences that decision engenders, is utterly fucking exhausting.

I say all this not to garner pity – as I said, I know I have it better than most – but simply to paint a picture of some of the additional challenges LGBTQ people face, and to underscore why Pride events are so much more than a just ‘nice day out’. For most, they form a vitally important element of our community’s often precarious sense of mental wellbeing.

For me personally, my annual pilgrimage to Pride in London is one of the highlights of my year. It is a time when I can cast off the shackles of my half in-half out, northern existence and allow the real me to dominate, front and centre, without the questioning looks and the whispered, badly disguised speculations like, “Do you reckon his wife knows he’s bent?”

More broadly, it is a time when we can all be who we were born to be, who we’ve always known we are, but for whom we have never felt fully accepted. It is a time when we can hold hands or kiss each other in public without being spat upon or abused. It is a time when we can be unashamedly camp or flamboyant, without having to make a thousand real-time calculations as to whether that’s likely to jeopardise our safety. It’s a time when we can just be, without having to worry about ‘passing’ or ‘fitting in’ with people who don’t mind us being gay, as long as we do so in the very particular, strictly defined and understated manner they have deemed acceptable. It’s a time when, for just a few short, sweet hours of the year, we can be free.

I’ve read a lot recently about how straight people are missing pubs and restaurants and cafes. This is entirely understandable, and I do sympathise, but imagine if your pubs were the only places in which you could safely relax your mannerisms, speak freely about your home life, or hold your partner’s hand. Then imagine that you lived in a city that only had one pub. Maybe go on to imagine that this single establishment only opened two nights a week, from 10 pm until 6 am, when the majority of old bastards like me are tucked up in bed. One place in the entire locality where, if you don’t like sticky floors, banging music and drinking until it’s light, you’re basically excluded anyway. That is the reality for huge numbers of LGBTQ people in the UK, and Pride is one of the few precious moments of relief we are allowed from this frustrating, constrained existence.

The absence of Pride represents so much more than the cancellation of the queers’ annual road-closing, attention-seeking carnival. For many of us, it represents a real and tangible loss that will be keenly felt and difficult to quantify. In normal times, Pride provides some brief respite from the othering, the mistreatment and the denigration that punctuates our daily lives. It provides hope for a brighter tomorrow, and a chance, for one day, to experience what it might be like should we ever finally achieve true equality. It provides an essential mental boost to help us weather the darker times that will inevitably follow this priceless moment of optimism when reality comes crashing back down around us.

This crisis has, distressingly, not even begun to put an end to the attacks our community is so often forced to endure, but what it has achieved is to rob us of one of our most vital coping mechanisms in the face of those attacks. And for that, I will unashamedly mourn its loss.

Episode 18

Max talks to ‘Tracy Beaker’ and ‘Dumping Ground’ actor, Connor Byrne, about ballet, musical theatre, snow penises, LGBT rights and, inevitably, coronavirus.

Contains frequent strong language.

Episode 16

Max talks to infectious disease doctor and presenter of CBBC’s ‘Operation Ouch’, Dr Chris Van Tulleken, about the Coronavirus pandemic.

This episode contains no strong language, and is suitable for younger listeners.