From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Time passes

Peter Clarke, HM Inspector of Prisons

October 24. Time is becoming an independent factor in the experience of coronavirus. 

In the early weeks, the reaction against a total lockdown was conditioned by the expectation that summer would witness a return to something like a normal life.  For a while that seemed to be the case as restrictions were lifted, the daily death rate fell to low double figures, and offices and schools opened.

Now it the ending is disappearing over the horizon.  There seems little prospect of any of the Government’s semi-privatised schemes ever working, nor is it likely that a vaccine will get on top of the pandemic until well into the New Year.  As Christmas is imperilled, prolonged anxiety and unending isolation are wearing away at the spirits.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the prisons, which, as I have argued in earlier posts, have been exposed to destructive solitude on a scale not seen anywhere in civilian life.  Time has been the currency of the penal system in Britain since it began to move away from physical punishment in the early nineteenth century.  The gravity of a crime is measured in the years that must be served.

It was apparent from the beginning that locking prisoners up for twenty-three hours a day to protect them from infection was likely to cause serious harm to inmates who were rarely in good psychological condition at the outset. 

Peter Clarke, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, has just published his final report before retirement.  He draws attention to the consequences of the lockdown in prisons:

“Given the obvious linkage between excessive time locked in cells and mental health issues, self-harm and drug abuse, it was concerning to find that the amount of time for which prisoners were unlocked for time out of cell was often unacceptably poor. Nineteen per cent of adult male prisoners told us that they were out of their cells for less than two hours on weekdays, including 32% in men’s local prisons. Is it any surprise that self-harm in prisons has been running at historically high levels during the past year?”*

As the months passed, with no early release of prisoners to reduce pressure within the system (unlike in France, where the prison population was swiftly reduced by 10,000), the effect worsened:

“All social visits had been suspended in March, and by the end of June this was beginning to cause frustration among prisoners… Time out of cell was still extremely restricted for nearly all prisoners, and with the almost complete lack of work, training or education, frustrations were beginning to build.”**

In subsequent interviews he challenged the prospect of such a regime continuing without prospect of amelioration:

“The question is: it is intended to keep people locked up for 23 days ad infinitum?  Or until the virus is eliminated?  That simply cannot be right.”***

Caught between an obdurate Prison Officers Association and an obtuse Ministry of Justice, it looks indeed as if the regime will continue until it explodes, or causes irreparable damage to inmates.

Daniel Defoe’s Due Preparations for the Plague covered the question of what to do with prisoners in such an outbreak.  His solution was straightforward:

“Seventhly. — That all criminals, felons, and murderers should be forthwith tried, and such as are not sentenced to die, should be immediately transported or let out on condition of going forty miles from the city, not to return on pain of death.”****

You can argue with his prescription, but at least he recognised that drastic action needed to be taken.

*  p. 15

**p. 18

***Reported in

****1903 edn., p. 17.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Only Connect

In my capacity as a temporarily returned member of the Open University History Department, I have just taken part in an online research seminar.  As with most of my many video meetings in the lockdown, it achieved its basic purpose.  A group of interested scholars was gathered together.  The two presenters were able to outline their work, switching between their spoken account and various illustrative documents.  Questions were asked and answered.  We ended the session knowing more about the potential of using search engines to conduct textual analysis – in this case the deployment of the word ‘nationality’ in Hansard in the nineteenth century.  It turns out that the technical challenge of the process somewhat outweighs the insights yielded into the political history of the period.

I thought by now I was if not the master then at least a competent user of video technology.  However in addition to Zoom, Skype, and Microsoft Teams, I was now faced with Adobe Connect.  As has been the case in first encounters with each of the technologies, the ten minutes before the session began was a time of mounting panic, with emergency downloads of apps, repeated attempts to get them to work before, for no apparent reason, suddenly there was a connection and we were away.  But Adobe Connect, at least in the version I had found, lacked the mute / unmute switch.  So when the time came to ask my own penetrating question, I could neither be heard nor could I know that I was excluded from the conversation which was continuing without me.   It was a kind of waking nightmare, when you know you are speaking, but not that no-one can hear you.  Eventually one of the presenters noticed my gesticulating hands and, as the new language has it, let me in.

The world of virtual discussion has placed a new premium on listening.  Physical face-to-face conversations have become a rare privilege, and those conducted electronically lack many of the visual clues by which we communicate meaning.  In the case of an arcane branch of the digital humanities, this may not matter so much.   But when it comes to medical consultations, it becomes much more important.  I was talking yesterday to a nurse sent out from my surgery to conduct a routine blood test in my home.  How are the practice staff managing with a limited number of physical consultations and the rest conducted on the phone or by video link?  Not well she thought.  You need to see someone, how they look, how they hold themselves, to understand what they are, and crucially, are not, telling you. 

This applies particularly to the field of mental health, which as I discussed in the entry for June 30 is especially vulnerable in the pandemic lockdown.  A newly qualified mental health social worker is interviewed in today’s paper.  Thrown in at the deep end, he has had to refashion his newly-acquired diagnostic tools.  He is compelled to meet his clients virtually.  “The challenge,” he explains, “and the negative side of that, is that I am not going into people’s homes so I don’t get to see the full picture. You can get a real sense of somebody within seconds of seeing them. People might be able to present quite well on the phone but be feeling quite unwell.” The pandemic has caused him to hone and refocus his skills: “I have had to learn to practise with my ears open and really listen to people and hear what they are saying.” 

We speak of love at first sight, not at first hearing.  To get even someone you know, let alone a stranger, fully to express themselves in words, is hard.  Harder still is the patience and the attention required to understand what they mean.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Solitude and Loneliness

May 27 In my diary entry for April 8, I wrote that:

Enforced isolation has an ambiguous effect on the two experiences.  On the one hand it has made solitude a still more valued practice.  In families where the adults are working at home, the children are about all day long, the garden is small or non-existent, periods of solitary escape have become as desirable and unattainable as supermarket delivery slots … On the other hand, it has made loneliness still more threatening.  It becomes more difficult to make physical contact with such friends as the individual possesses.  Intermittent escapes from an empty home to shops, cafes, local libraries, public entertainments, are now forbidden.”  I concluded that, “Where the balance will finally be struck in these contrasting effects of isolation remains to be seen.”

Now the evidence is beginning to appear to answer this question.  The crisis has stimulated the creation of a number of major research projects across the social sciences, which have been planned, funded and put into practice in a remarkably short space of time.  One of the largest of these is the UCL Nuffield Covid 19 Social Study.  This is a questionnaire-based survey which currently has 90,000 respondents.  It is not a representative statistical sample of the population, but is large enough to generate substantial conclusions.  The research team, led by Daisy Fancourt and Andrew Steptoe, have a sophisticated grasp of the concepts and categories of mental health, and are publishing weekly bulletins of their findings.

The ‘Covid-19 Social Study Results Release 8’, on 13 May, was particularly interesting.*  Table 21 measured the incidence of ‘Loneliness’ on the industry-standard UCLA loneliness scale.  This was unchanged across the lockdown period at around 5%.  This is the same level as more cautious observers and social historians have projected across the entire post-war period, and about a quarter of the claims made in the Government’s current loneliness strategy.  Whatever else it is doing, the covid19 epidemic is not causing an epidemic of loneliness.

The team found that the condition was “higher amongst younger adults, those living alone, those with lower household income levels, and those with an existing diagnosed mental health condition.  They are also higher amongst women, people with children, and people living in urban areas.”  It was correspondingly lower than 5% amongst those over 60, those with higher incomes, those without mental health conditions, and those living without children.

Table 27, by contrast, measured ‘Activities missed during lockdown.’  At the top of the table, not surprisingly, were ‘Meeting up with family’ and ‘Meeting up with friends.’  Half way down was ‘Having time alone.’  This was the solitude measure.  The analysts broke down the emotion only by age.  The younger the respondent, the more likely they were to be lacking time alone.

What is really interesting is the volume.  Just over thirty per cent of the population were included in this category.

In other words, after an extended period of lockdown, solitude is being sought by six times as many people as are experiencing loneliness.


from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: boredom? Or is it fear?

April 27. I can find things to do, but I am like a grasshopper, unable to settle. Before this virus dominated our lives, I felt time stretched out in such a way there was mental space for me to … to plan … to write another novel … to read serious books … basically, to concentrate. Now I struggle. My mind has shallowed, lost the will to believe in the possibility of normal.

The uncertainty is getting to me – every day we receive unsettling news. One moment the experts say you will get immunity after recovering from Covid-19. Now, they are not sure. Specialists are reporting that the virus is acting in strange ways not registered before – causing unexpected blood clotting behaviour, for example. We read about past pandemics and mutations and realise how vulnerable we are – and how foolish we have been as a species in our factory farming and consumption of wild animals.

And the USA, which is our western world’s mightiest power and democracy is attacking the WHO, stopping payments, and undermining them in other ways. All this in an attempt to distract from Trump’s mistakes. We spend our time ridiculing the most powerful man in the world, but it’s more a time to weep than laugh. How have we come to this? We are living on slippery sand at the end of our lives.

So, who do we trust? Our politicians are severely scrutinised as we assess them for mistakes. World-wide, faith in politicians is at an all-time low.  Currently, in Australia, there is a fierce debate about whether children should return to school this week. Our South Australian Premier says ‘Yes,’ – with care – taking advice from SA Chief Public Health Officer, Professor Nicola Spurrier.

But the Australian Education Union, SA president, Lara Golding, muddied the waters, saying that their safety was “not considered as important …(teachers) are told that they are essential workers but don’t have the equipment, training or support to manage a health crisis.” It’s a question of who is most vulnerable and it’s a tricky question. We have not had any new cases in South Australia for 5 days but I read this issue as being more of a power wrangle between a Labor Union and a Liberal Premier. No wonder we are confused about the greater good and who to trust.

Many are saying: trust the science. Sure, but across the world there is some confusion of science as well – do we need masks if we have no symptoms? Yes? No? What is the best treatment for severe cases? Ventilate or not? What drugs are recommended for severe cases? Why is it taking so long to assess hydroxychloroquine?

No wonder my sleep pattern is disturbed. Dreams are strange and vivid.

“Present fears are less than horrible imaginings” …. Macbeth

from Brenda in Hove, UK: A walk in the park

Hove Park, UK

“Thinking about the things we used to do! 🎶🎶 – like a walk in the park …”

Most days I go for a 20 minute walk (government guideline time!). We are fortunate to live abutting a park so we are very familiar with the seasons and many of the people who walk there. Many are walking their dogs and often one stops for a chat. There is a small cafe selling breakfasts and lunches and tea and coffee.- and, among others, lots of mothers with small children meet there. There is also a gym as well as people with personal trainers doing their thing. There are tennis courts and table tennis facilities. Altogether, a friendly, active, humming kind of place – that was! 

It is not like that any more. It strikes one as anything but relaxed. People walk at a two metre distance and they do so in a purposeful way. Cyclists go past you, children on scooters, runners – all going about their daily activity as if their life depends on it. There is little in the way of eye contact, no tarrying, no chatting, no bird watching, no photography (despite the breathtaking beauty of the cherry blossoms at this time of the year).  The cafe is, of course, closed – as is the gym. The young mothers have disappeared. No tennis. No table tennis. A police car cruises around the boundary from time to time. I don’t know why they bother. A more orderly bunch of people would be difficult to find. 

Yesterday, a woman called across the path to me “it’s very cold today.” She had a slightly desperate air about her. “It is,” I said. “Just when we thought the winter was over.” “I don’t have heating in my flat”, she said. We had a short conversation about keeping warm and not mistaking a cold for corona virus – and I awkwardly exhorted her to keep warm and safe – and moved on. I thought of all the lonely people whose daily routine included a coffee or meal at the cafe and a walk (and chance encounter) – and how a walk for some is an important contributor to their mental health. For those who suffer from depression this corona virus has visited a double crisis upon them. Many live alone and even their short venture out provides no contact. If you add in the fear and anxiety that many people must be feeling, not just about the virus itself but about their jobs and mortgages and future, we have a serious issue which must be causing enormous suffering. 

A Guardian columnist (#AndrewSolomon) writes that “from now on, when someone who hasn’t experienced clinical depression and anxiety asks me what they feel like, I won’t have to resort to florid comparisons. I’ll say: “Remember when the Covid-19 pandemic hit town?”  And they will understand.”