The situation surrounding COVID-19 is changing by the day, meaning some of the information in this article might be out of date. For our most recent coronavirus coverage, click here.
The past few months have seen COVID-19 – a new strain of coronavirus thought to have been transmitted from a bat – go from a few initial cases in Wuhan, China, to a fully-fledged pandemic, with over 125,000 cases across 118 countries and territories and counting. Stock markets are crashing, flights are being cancelled and, so far, Italy and the Chinese province of Hubei have been placed under lockdown to slow the spread of the virus.
With our overcrowded transport system and estimated population of 8.9 million, it would make sense that London might soon need to follow suit (Sergio Brusin of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has said a UK-wide lockdown could be an option in as little as two weeks). But if history has taught us anything, London does not deal with unexpected situations in the same way as other cities. We may have a reputation for a “keep calm and carry on” attitude, but I would argue the opposite: heat waves cause us to descend into chaos, a light dusting of snow brings everything to a standstill and we're already hoarding loo roll as if this is the last time we'll ever be able to wipe our arses.
All of which is to say: it's best to have at least some idea about what to expect. Here's what would happen if London went into COVID-19 lockdown.
NO, LOCKDOWN IS NOT THE SAME AS SELF-ISOLATION
Self isolation means you need to stay indoors and avoid contact with other people for at least 14 days. You only need to self isolate if you've recently travelled to an affected area or been in close contact with an infected person (spending 15 minutes within two metres of someone with the virus is a significant risk, according to Public Health England).
During a lockdown, those same rules don't apply. You are able to leave the house, sporadically – you're just generally advised not to, and all mass gatherings and public events would be cancelled. Restaurants, cafes, cinemas and nightclubs would also remain closed. In other words: yeah, walk your dog up and down the road if you must, but don't bother popping out for your daily iced coffee because nobody will be there to make it.
PUBLIC TRANSPORT WILL PROBABLY REMAIN OPEN
You'd think that the first thing to close down in the event of a lockdown would be public transport, considering that's where most of us come into contact with large swathes of people. But probably not. While Transport for London declined to comment on whether they had any future plans to temporarily shut down the tube, overground or buses in response to the outbreak, public transport in Italy remains operational. So it would make sense that London would follow suit.
That said, movement would be severely restricted. VICE Italy editor-in-chief Alice Rossi, who is based in Milan, tells me over email that passengers are told to stay at least one metre away from one another while travelling. “But there have been calls, especially in the most affected areas like Milan, to limit public transport as well,” she says, “as it's really hard to make sure the one meter rule is applied... Things may change again, as has been the case in the last few days.”
NO, YOU WOULDN'T BE ABLE TO JUST GO SIT IN THE PARK WITH SOME CANS AND WAIT FOR ALL OF THIS TO BLOW OVER
Usually the combination of not having to go into work, a hint of sunshine and a glimmer of chaos causes people in London to immediately stop what they're doing, buy a four pack of lager and sit in the park while some topless guy in a bucket hat gets out the portable speakers (see: heatwaves, bank holidays, anything relating to the royals getting married or dying).
In the event of a COVID-19 lockdown, though, that wouldn't really be the vibe. Those living in Italy right now, for instance, are unable to roam around freely unless they have an essential reason to do so, such as going to work or acquiring urgent care. “There is a form available for downloading,” Dr Elisabetta Groppelli recently explained to the BBC. “You have to fill it in yourself with your address, details about where you want to go, where you're coming from and what is the reason.”
These aren't measures that can be ignored, either. “If you're seen around, you can be stopped by police forces and asked for the reason behind your movement,” Alice tells me. “If this happens, you need to provide valid reasons and in some cases sign a self-certification which will then be checked by authorities. As of now, there have been reports of people mostly stopped (and sometimes fined) while in their cars or on long-distance train trips.”
YOU'D STILL BE ABLE TO GET GROCERIES
People across the country might be manically stockpiling Super Noodles, but it's highly unlikely that you wouldn't be able to get down to Tesco to do a Big Shop even in the event of a city-wide lockdown. Across Italy, for instance, shops, bars and restaurants are closed but supermarkets, pharmacies and banks remain open, with home deliveries continuing as usual. So as long as people stay one metre away from each other while getting their essentials, regular grocery shopping should be fine.
Over in Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak, the situation is a lot stricter. Residents are only able to leave their compounds once every three days, with many relying on community volunteers delivering food to their homes. According to the Hong Kong Free Press, others can only get food by group ordering groceries with their neighbours through Chinese messaging apps like WeChat. At this point, however, it's unlikely that London or the rest of the UK would need to resort to those measures – we are closer to Italy than China in terms of the number of confirmed cases.
NO, A LOCKDOWN WOULDN'T LAST FOREVER
If you end up sat in your pants eating your seventh consecutive bowl of pasta and miscellaneous tinned items, it might be easy to feel like this is just how we live now. But lockdowns in general are a temporary, preventative measure to ensure the spread of the virus slows. It's important not to lose sight of the bigger picture: during the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak, for instance, various restrictions and quarantines were implemented across Sierra Leone and the rate of infection has since waned. Neither viruses are comparable, but lockdowns do work – and they don't last forever.
It's difficult to predict how long a COVID-19 lockdown should or could last. Italy is currently under lockdown until the 3rd of April. However, as Dr Groppelli points out, there could be an extension, and the next few weeks are crucial. “This situation is very dynamic and it's important that the authorities respond to it,” she told the BBC." Stricter measures do have an effect, but these measures will not have an effect unless people are on board.” So for god's sake, stop sneezing on the bus handrail.