Bernard Trafford reckons he cannot be the first person to use that metaphor with regard to the Covid pandemic. The current lockdown seems at last to be limiting the spread of the virus, and the rollout of vaccinations across the UK, at a pace remarkable by any standards, provides the long-term hope we all crave. Hurrah! Finally there is light at the end of the tunnel: but let’s not mess up now and turn it into a false dawn.
For once I find myself agreeing with the Prime Minister, quoted in today’s Times as urging us to be “optimistic but patient”. Whenever he allows things – schools, businesses, hospitality, sport, you name them – to open up once more, he knows the change must be irreversible (his word): politically he will be unable to impose yet another lockdown.
As a result, he must remain strong in the face of both pressure from sections of the media to provide a detailed timetable (a call I find both unnecessary and irritating), and more extreme demands from the “common sense” bunch of anti-lockdown Tory MPs, a self-identifying label as risibly oxymoronic as the suggestion that the CIA afford ex-President Trump “intelligence briefings” or the description of that other, now almost purposeless pressure group, the ERG, as a “Conservative think-tank”.
It’s going to be slow: and it must be so, or we risk the glimmer of light that we can now perceive with the naked eye proving to be instead a terrible disappointment, the disaster of a false dawn.
I’m as cheered by the fall in infections and deaths, painfully slow as it is, as the next optimist. And, yes, I am an optimist. I’m not sure how one could spend 40 years as teacher and headteacher without being one, for education is all about offering, creating and developing futures.
But I remain cautious because I – because all of us – have seen false dawns before.
We had one in late summer and autumn when life began to return to something approaching normal: before the somewhat panic-stricken November lockdown. We were promised a sociable Christmas before that was curtailed – though perhaps too late to prevent new Covid variants from spreading (acknowledging that we may never be able precisely to identify cause and effect where spreading and lockdown responses are concerned).
I mention false dawns not to apportion blame (though it’s tempting), but because that hint of light at the end of that tunnel is something we all need. Eleven months ago the first lockdown started. As the weeks progressed, it became clear that we were in for the long haul. People were scarcely daring to breathe the word vaccine at such an early stage, and Boris’s somewhat inane notes of cheer were unconvincing.
But light of a kind did help to carry us through that early stage. A week after lockdown started, we put the clocks forward and moved into British Summer Time. The days grew longer, and April and May brought a prolonged period of fine weather that lifted spirits. By contrast, having freedoms curtailed once more in midwinter was a significant downer.
Still, we’re already in February: daylight is increasing and the vaccine – indeed, multiple varieties – is no longer on the horizon but happening just down the road, promising the long-term solution to the pandemic.
So that light at the end of the tunnel is real, offering warmth and promise: it’s not (as writer Robert Lowell quipped) merely the light on an oncoming train.
Mercifully, our PM seems to have given up attempting to sound Churchillian. Otherwise he might now be proffering the prospect of sunny post-viral uplands, or even suggesting (not without reason) that this isn’t the end of the war against Covid, nor even the beginning of the end: but that it is perhaps the end of the beginning.
Let’s hang on to that thought, then. Despite the urgency for so many, we must resist the urge to open up too quickly and set our eventual recovery back by months or years.
Truly, finally there is some light at the end of the tunnel: but let’s not lose our nerve, ignore medical advice and end up rendering that light a false dawn.