A few days ago, I took a stroll to the shops. It was a glorious morning and the parks and cafés were full of families enjoying the sunshine. Perhaps the shops were a little quieter than they would have been a year ago; but they were busy enough.
The restaurants were preparing for lunch; the mood was relaxed and happy. And nobody — yes, nobody — was wearing a mask.
That, of course, is the giveaway.
I wasn’t in Britain but in Sweden, a nation which stood alone in Europe in refusing to institute lockdown. And as I queued to buy my son an ice cream, I was struck by the contrast with the situation back home. Like most people, I never imagined that the lockdown would last so long, or that the consequences would be so calamitous.
Indeed, a few weeks after Boris Johnson announced the draconian restrictions on lives and livelihoods, I wrote on these pages that fears of a second Great Depression were overblown, and that with the right spirit, Britain would quickly bounce back.
But as the months went by and we sank into inertia, my optimism evaporated.
Recent figures suggest that our economy shrank by 20 per cent in the first three months of lockdown, a far worse decline than in other industrial countries such as the U.S. and Germany.
Most experts believe the worst is yet to come, with the Bank of England predicting that unemployment will hit 2.5 million by the end of the year. And even that may be too optimistic. Yet despite these dire projections and the need to get the nation up and running — and in spite of the good news on the dramatic fall in death rates and admissions to hospital — parts of Britain remain in the grip of near-terminal paralysis.