An unexpected feature of England's lockdown easing was the partial reopening of the housing market. Although this had not formed part of the Prime Minister's broadcast or considerable media speculation, there it was in the revised regulations laid before Parliament in the middle of last week. Readers might remember my bad luck in this regard in week two of London: I had been due to 'complete' on a property purchase in South London on the very day the Government 'froze' the housing market.
So with that previous transaction behind me (I withdrew my offer for reasons other than COVID-19), I am now free to view available flats in London, my first taste of relative normality under the new rules. Sure enough, within hours of the change, estate agents I'd registered with two months ago suddenly sprang into life, although it was clear they were still finding their way in terms of the practicalities: would the owners (or occupiers) have to vacate the property during viewings? Would potential buyers have to bring their own hand sanitiser, gloves and mask?
It seems most agents have settled on the last two as a necessity, with some planning to leave the property open and others intending to give prospective buyers a tour as they would normally, just at a distance of two metres (which strikes me as impractical given the modest size of properties within my price range). The anomalies of this relaxation have been well covered: I am now free to visit a stranger's home but not those of my friends or family. One estate agent told me this week was 'convenient' for viewings as the owners of a property I like would be 'away' for a few days. Funny how a once innocuous statement now hangs heavily in the air, begging all sorts of questions.
The new lockdown rules also mean a modest boost to my hitherto non-existent social life. I am now able to meet one person from another household, as long as it's at a distance and outdoors. Initially, this gave rise to all sorts of awkward situations. I asked two local friends if they would be up for a wander and at first they seemed amenable, but then there was silence. For a few days I nursed what I took to be rejection (I assumed they had received a better offer), but then on Sunday one of them responded and suggested a constitutional through (what remains of) the Middlesex Filter Beds, close to where I live in Hackney.
For some reason, I felt elated, I'm guessing at the prospect of prolonged social contact with someone other than my brother or his partner. So for an hour or so, we strolled around the Filter Beds, Hackney Marshes and Walthamstow Marshes, enjoying the sunshine and discussing life, the universe and coronavirus. My corner of London, at least, was taking full advantage of the relaxation: there were people sunbathing, picnicking and clearly doing the same as me with one (or more) friends. Unless, however, everyone I saw was part of a large household meeting those from another large household, it didn't seem to me that the rules were being followed to the letter.
I continue to receive emails and messages from people asking me 'how London is', and the tone in which they ask this question suggests they expect me to reply that it's pretty grim. Taking a step back, I suppose that's how it looks from the outside, by which I mean other parts of the UK as well as internationally. And, to be fair, I'm subject to the same phenomenon: watching news from the United States, a country I know well, it's easy to conclude that it's on the brink of societal collapse, yet when I contact friends on the East or West Coast they assure me things aren't as bad as they look.
I saw a chart the other day which estimated London's 'R' figure to be around 0.4, the lowest in the UK, although this is notoriously difficult to pin down with any certainty. This, presumably, is because London was hit by the virus early on and therefore peaked sooner than other parts of the country, although as the lockdown eases – not only in England, but in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – it'll be interesting (if not concerning) to see what happens to those numbers.
Talking of the multi-national United Kingdom, the past couple of weeks has seen one of those periods in which a lot of people apparently discovered devolution for the first time, the sort of belated recognition I remember from the Scottish independence referendum of 2012-14, when my London-based colleagues dipped into a decades-old debate for the first time. These devo-discoveries are usually accompanied by the same sort of commentary, i.e. coronavirus means the Union is strengthened and/or the crisis means independence is now inevitable.
I offer no comment on which of those are likely to be true, but as someone who's been navigating the devolutionary landscape since 1999, the year I graduated from Aberdeen University, it always bemuses me that such huge changes in the territorial constitution of the United Kingdom have passed a lot of otherwise well-informed people by. For now, I'm adding this heightened devo-awareness to my ever-expanding list of things I hope endures AC – After Coronavirus.