Hundreds of thousands volunteered to help their neighbours. Millions joined the weekly clap for carers. Tens of millions complied with the government’s instructions when it dramatically deprived them of some of their most basic liberties.
When a national lockdown was imposed towards the end of March, the country was exhorted to think of it as a collective endeavour. Speaking live to a massive TV audience, Boris Johnson declared: “We will beat the coronavirus and we will beat it together.” This was, in many senses, highly artificial. The dangers posed by the coronavirus and the sacrifices demanded to control it have never been evenly shared. There was nevertheless a palpable sense at the time of the first wave that people wanted to unify in the face of an invisible menace.
In the immediate aftermath of the lockdown announcement, more than 90% of the population backed the restrictions on their lives. The Tory leader enjoyed a big surge in his personal approval ratings. Even among many who had not voted for him, there was a desire to want him to be a good prime minister in this crisis. For a while, he was much more popular than he had been at the time of the December election. Keir Starmer, anxious not to put Labour on the wrong side of the national mood, pledged to be “constructive”. The media, also nervous about running foul of public opinion, largely gave the government the benefit of the doubt. Tory libertarians muttered darkly when the nation was barred from its boozers, but most kept their grumbles to themselves.
Read more: The Guardian