Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, the British Ministry of Information was given the unenviable task of creating a phrase to rouse the nation into action against the threat of Nazism. Their words, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, although later retired, became synonymous with the nation’s famously resilient wartime spirit. Nowadays, the once powerful words languish on the front of tacky tote bags and teapots sold in the shadow of the Tower of London, perhaps the time has come to get the well-loved words back out of retirement.

In March of this year, Downing Street came up with various phrases to try and spur the nation into action against the threat of Covid-19. Their early demands to ‘Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.’ were probably not cheery enough to be plastered onto a tea towel, but were wholly appropriate given that the country needed a clear message amid so much uncertainty.

However, half a year later, a new rallying cry is needed. The new normal centres on the idea that cancellations and restrictions are something we must learn to live with. But this is another phrase designed for the first lockdown, when the government required silence and obedience while experts scrambled to understand the nature of the virus. As our knowledge grows, we need to move away from our ‘snowflake generation’ meekness and return to the stoicism of wartime Britain. The words ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ seem more appropriate now, when we need to focus on the importance of keeping our fear of coronavirus from eclipsing all else.

Of course, it’s not easy. The new normal has become a comforting scapegoat, a way of avoiding the nightmarish reality of combatting the risk of Covid-19. It is infinitely simpler to zone out as a Zoom meeting stutters its way into the third hour of unproductive brainstorming, than it is to spend time and money investing in precautions that could get us back into real life. Moves to virtual living and learning were a short term response to an unfamiliar situation - but their sustained use is not the way forward.

“...we need to focus on the importance of keeping our fear of coronavirus from eclipsing all else.”

Some activities are inherently incompatible with Covid-19 – the closure of nightclubs in March was a decision that felt inevitable and entirely rational. But now even seemingly Covid-safe activities seem to be off-limits. At a university level, the annual Cambridge Freshers’ Fair on Parker’s Piece has had to be cancelled; an event that is always held outside, with people eating their free pizza slices at a distance of 2m away from society representatives. On the national scale, organisers have simply given up with the idea of trying to hold London’s New Year’s Eve fireworks. Surely, with the necessary precautions, the people of London could have joined together to celebrate the end of what has been an incredibly challenging year.

The driving force behind the transition of these events to online alternatives is the ever-tightening grip of government restrictions. But these strict new rules seem driven by news reports that are promoting fear and blind tolerance, rather than providing the level-headed analysis of the facts we so desperately need. The latest ‘predictions of 50,000 cases a day’ fail to point out the important differences between the Easter outbreak and the situation now. Case numbers are rising for many reasons, partly because they can’t be adjusted for the fact that testing is so much more extensive now than it was earlier in the year. In late April, we were running 30,000 tests a day, but 6 months later, that number sits at 220,000 and is still rising. We must remember that the raw data used by the media cannot be used to make retrospective comparisons, and neither can it justify responding to this wave in exactly the same way as the last. As Professor Carl Heneghan of Oxford University says, “We need to slow down our thinking. But every time the government sees a rise in cases it seems to panic.”

“Without a national effort to find ways to return to reality, we risk watching an entire academic year slide by as we resignedly type in the next Meeting ID.”

This does not mean we should be complacent about risk. But we should take heart from the contrast to the height of the pandemic, when research suggested there may have been almost 100,000 cases a day, a far cry from the 5,000 or so we picked up at the time. It’s easy to trust statistics, but the truth is the data we keep quoting from the first wave only ever represented the tip of the iceberg.

It’s also important to hold sight of why we locked down in the first place. We needed to flatten the peak to protect the NHS. But now the picture is a lot less clear. Currently, there are 600 people in hospital with coronavirus, compared to 17,000 in April, so the NHS is a long way from being overwhelmed. We have to concede that cases must rise as the last days of summer draw to a close and flu season rears its ugly head. Our aim now is surely to prevent excess deaths in the vulnerable, rather than holding onto unrealistic hopes for a day with no new cases.

Our attitude at the start of the pandemic centred on the falsehood that this would be a challenging but brief period that simply had to be endured. But the bottom line is Covid-19 is here to stay. Even with vaccines being pushed through trials at breakneck speed, mass production, inoculation and herd immunity are a very long way off. Without a national effort to find ways to return to reality, we risk watching an entire academic year slide by as we resignedly type in the next Meeting ID.

Fear is an easy emotion to evoke but a hard one to contain. Our response to this pandemic must not be driven by an attitude of weary acceptance or a disproportionate response to clickbait headlines. We should of course stay alert, control the virus and continue saving lives. But we must rid ourselves of this attitude of tired defeat and instead, keep calm and look for Covid-safe ways of carrying on.

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