Roger Ratcliffe squints
his eyes in the sun but
still can’t quite see the route to freedom

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This is how a hedgehog must feel when it emerges from winter hibernation among comforting piles of leaves and shuffles into the warm rays of spring sunshine. Or it’s like a dormouse waking up deep inside a tree crevice and realising that, hey, the wood is now its oyster.

That’s roughly my reaction to the first easing of lockdown restrictions. After the best part of three months of what has been mere existence rather than living, I can stretch cramped limbs and finally venture forth away from home without risking my collar being felt by another constabulary.

Pretty soon we can all pick up the threads of our dormant social lives by meeting friends to eat and drink outdoors. Sadly though, the world we are about to reconnect with has changed. When we can once again walk down high streets or through shopping arcades and retail parks that have been more or less shuttered since January there will be glaring gaps among the retailers. During the pandemic more than 17,500 chain store outlets have disappeared or are in the process of closing branches, among them familiar names like Debenhams, John Lewis, Topshop, Topman, Dorothy Perkins, Edinburgh Woollen Mill, Peter Jones and Bonmarche. Add to that the growing number of independent retailers that have been forced to shut up shop.

Also noticeable will be the whitened windows of restaurants, bars and cafés that found that this was a lockdown too many. The sector had already been clobbered by strict social distancing regimes as well as closures in the run-up to Christmas in the tier system. Many victims are small family-run concerns, but even large franchises like Burger King and Pizza Hut have had to close outlets.

For a dormouse, this is like waking up to find that many of the trees on which it depended for its diet of flowering buds, berries, nuts and seeds have been felled during hibernation, leading to fierce competition for the remaining supplies. In human terms, this great reawakening of post-lockdown Britain will mean a lot of jostling for tables – at least among those whose finances have not been decimated – although one of the main skills we have picked up in the last year is how to patiently stand in line a couple of metres apart and wait our turn.

Of course, we should always take anything prime minister Johnson says with a lump of salt. And when he announced the road map out of lockdown on 23 February he basically said (not his exact words, I admit, but those of Cliff Richard) “we’re all going on a summer holiday”. He was immediately slapped down by scientists telling him that lockdown easing should be guided by “data not dates”. So it’s no surprise to find that just a month later it appears he meant, as far as travel abroad is concerned, a late-summer holiday, most likely in August.

Even that may be a hard promise to keep because of new virus variants. Already anyone visiting Europe on anything but urgent business risks a hefty fine, something which wasn’t foreseen by Johnson. The truth is, his road map is leading us up cul-de-sacs and likely to end in more of Johnson’s famous U-turns. The target of lockdown easing by midsummer’s day now looks optimistic, and he should say so.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe

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