On Sunday, lonely as a cloud, I wandered across a windswept moor in County Durham and passed a solitary sandstone rock with a small, round hollow in the top, an old penny glued to the base of the hollow. It is called the Butter Stone and it’s where, during the plague in 1665, coins were left in a pool of vinegar by the inhabitants of nearby towns and villages, to be exchanged with farmers for food. The idea was that the farmer or his customer approached the rock only when the other was at a safe distance.
Four modern coins were on the rock, anonymous offerings to the spirits of the moor. Never once in my six decades did I expect to be back in a 17th-century world of social and physical distancing as a matter of life and death.
There are no good outcomes from here. Many people will die prematurely. Many will lose their jobs. Many businesses will go under. Many people will suffer bereavement, loneliness and despair, even if they dodge the virus. The only question is how many in each case. We are about to find out how robust civilisation is. The hardships ahead are like nothing we’ve known.
The British government has been unusual in ramping up its social distancing measures, rather than rushing them all at once. This resulted in a good deal of bafflement and criticism, some of it justified. The driving motive was concern that a resurgence of the virus after its initial suppression would be a disastrous outcome, because people would not allow themselves to be curfewed twice, so the timing had to be right. But the vicious experience of Italy has changed everything. So when the darned models revealed that a single ‘managed’ peak here leading to eventual herd immunity might kill 260,000 people and overwhelm the National Health Service, the strategy shifted from ‘delay’ to ‘suppress’.