Going down for the third time
As England plunges into a third nationwide Lockdown, with schools across the country closed, the only hope of recovery lies with mass vaccination.
You know what they say about going down for the third time. It's the end. Finished. There's no getting up again.
Some say the phrase comes from boxing - if you hit the floor a third time, the likelihood is you don't clamber back on your feet. Others suggest that it's about the struggle against drowning - when the head goes under the water for the third time, it doesn't resurface.
Let's just hope that it doesn't apply to nations and pandemics.
England has just entered its third nationwide Lockdown, with a screeching of tyres and whiff of burning brake pads which points to a touch of panic. It was only a couple of weeks ago that Boris Johnson's government tightened restrictions on movement in the face of a new variant of the COVID-19 virus which, while no more lethal, is more easily transmitted. That has done nothing to limit the spread of the new variant. There are now a third as many COVID patients requiring treatment in London's hospitals than a week ago.
So at 8 o'clock on Monday evening, Boris Johnson did another of his broadcasts to the nation. The weeks ahead 'will be the hardest yet', he warned. He's not a natural at these televised addresses - by temperament, he's much better clowning and being upbeat than the more sombre, pensive style required to dispense unwelcome news.
The new Lockdown, he announced simply, reinforces the restrictions already in place in much of the country. But with one big change - schools across England are being required to close, with all teaching being done remotely.
This is where the panic is evident. There has, for weeks, been a rumbling row about whether schools should remain open. Teachers' unions argued against because of the health risks - while young children are much less susceptible to the virus, schools may serve as vectors of transmission - and because of the need for some certainty and stability. But the government insisted that the damage to children's education from shutting schools outweighed other concerns.
So on Monday morning, most primary schools across England reopened after the Christmas holidays. But by that afternoon - battered by strongly expressed advice from the government's own health experts - ministers had a rethink. That evening Johnson announced school closures with immediate effect. On Tuesday morning, millions of youngsters who had expected to be at school were stuck at home, and millions of parents were juggling childcare and homeschooling concurrently with working from the makeshift office in the spare bedroom.
It all feels dreadfully disorganised. Public health professionals have been saying for some time that a stricter Lockdown was required. The opposition Labour Party has been advocating tougher measures. The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all been quicker off the mark than Boris (he's the prime minister of all four nations in the United Kingdom, but on issues of health and public health his writ only runs in England). His problem is a loud pseudo-libertarian lobby within the Conservative Party which disapproves of a strict Lockdown because of its economic impact and the violation of individual liberties.
But the decisive factor has been the pressure on the National Health Service. In London, some hospitals have cancelled cancer operations because they are overwhelmed by patients with the virus who require intensive care. Emergency hospitals have been set up in conference halls and exhibitions centres up and down the country to cope with an overflow of patients. These have been barely used because there aren't sufficient trained medical staff available. Building a hospital can, at a push, be done in weeks - but training a doctor takes years.
The new Lockdown will last for at least six weeks, and in all likelihood until early April. Its lifting depends on the progress of the mass vaccination campaign. Boris Johnson has said he expects that the 12 million people most vulnerable to the virus - care home residents and staff, key health workers, and those over 70 or with acute underlying health problems - will be vaccinated by mid-February. And by April, the worst could, just could, be over.
So if the vaccine works as we all hope it will, and the roll-out is tolerably smooth, then there is at least a chance that England will beat the old adage, and rise again after its third plunge into Lockdown. Wish us well!