The novelty of lockdown has worn off. For the first couple of weeks (particularly when people were consoled with mortgage 'holidays' and 80% of their salaries being paid) there was a sense of entering a prolonged Bank Holiday weekend.
Projects were planned, box-sets were piled up, wine was uncorked and the kids were fobbed off with 24/7 access to computers, plates of treats and no pressure to get homeworks done. The whole thing was a bit of an adventure, a bit of a lark. And the weather was unseasonably wonderful.
It's different now. Boredom has set in. People are getting tetchy. Those with jobs are beginning to wonder if those jobs will still be there if the lockdown is allowed to continue for much longer. Millions without access to a reasonable-sized garden are desperate to get to parks, play parks, leisure centres and gyms. Social media allows us to keep in contact, but a keyboard is no substitute for physical contact and the hugs and handshakes we all took for granted a month ago.
Evidence suggests that increasing numbers of people are being tempted back into cars and into walking and driving further from their homes. They want out. They want to be able to come and go. They are beginning to believe the Government is treating them like children and not trusting them to behave responsibly - especially when it comes to social distancing. There is only so much TikTok they can take as a form of distraction. Novelty is not normal. It never can be.
The Government has also realised that it cannot keep people indoors against their will; not least because it doesn't have the security muscle to enforce what would begin to look more and more like a curfew.
What worries the virus/health experts is that huge numbers of the population may be ready to 'accept the risks' of ending lockdown and getting life back to normal as quickly as possible
It knows too that holding out the prospect of loosening the lockdown conditions 'when the time is right' isn't going to be enough for much longer. Big businesses, hundreds of thousands of smaller outlets (it was Napoleon who described Britain as a 'nation of shopkeepers') and the growing army of self-employed and freelancers fear that avoiding a long-term economic catastrophe is a greater priority that simply limiting the numbers of people who may be struck down with Covid-19.
In the middle of March there was a palpable, demonstrable fear of coronavirus. Everyone believed they could contract it and many, probably a majority, believed the death rates would be enormous. Hiding from it made sense.
Locking ourselves away from it made sense. So there was widespread support for the Government strategy of lockdown. But it now seems to be the case that a majority is now not terrified by the death rates. Too many may believe that it's mostly the elderly - and those with 'underlying' conditions - who die. There's a growing belief that most people under 60 who get it will get a mild form and be back on their feet in a few weeks - a bit like the Prime Minister, in fact.
What worries the virus/health experts is that huge numbers of the population may be ready to 'accept the risks' of ending lockdown and getting life back to normal as quickly as possible. What worries the politicians, particularly the Government, is that the popular support that made lockdown possible in the first case will begin to turn against them and in favour of free movement and a return to work. Too many are tired of the nanny, nannying state.
In a piece for the Belfast Telegraph last Wednesday, I asked "would enough people be prepared to accept the risks involved with a looser form of lockdown in exchange for a return to something they recognise as a 'normal' life? That might still require social distancing for months on end - at least until there was a vaccine available - but it might be possible to reopen shops, pubs and hotels; return schools to normal; allow some sports to begin again; and allow millions of people to return to work and full salaries". I think the answer to that question is probably a thumping yes.
Listening to what Boris Johnson said on his return to work on Monday (and it may explain why he was so keen to get back) suggests he also thinks the answer to the question would be yes.
He said: "When we are sure that this first phase is over and that we are meeting our five tests: deaths falling, NHS protected, rate of infection down, really sorting out the problems of testing and PPE and avoiding a second peak, then that will be the time to move on to the second phase in which we continue to suppress the disease and keep the reproduction rate - the R rate - down, but begin gradually to refine the economic and social restrictions and one-by-one to fire up the engines of this vast UK economy."
No signal there of any intention to ease the lockdown restrictions: and that lack of a signal will anger many, many people. They will also be angry with a further comment from him: "And in that process difficult judgments will be made and we simply cannot spell out now how fast or slow or even when those changes will be made, though clearly the Government will be saying much more about this in the coming days." In moments of crisis people do not want sentences with 'how fast or slow or even when' in them. They want certainties. They want clear timetables. Crucially, they want their freedoms returned.
This is not a moment for promissory notes and pointless false hope. Johnson needs to be brutally honest with everyone
So, Johnson really does need to level with them. He needs to set out in graphic, gruesome detail the potential consequences of millions of people (who haven't already been infected) just tumbling into the streets, pubs, shops and workplaces again. Social distancing - the key to dealing with the virus - has worked for two key reasons: the vast majority of the population is in lockdown and those who are out are more easily monitored and steered. But millions outside again makes social distancing almost impossible to enforce.
Masks will, quite literally, slip when there are more people outside. Mistakes will be made. People will forget to 'keep the space between'. Complacency will set in.
And if, as seems likely, millions are struck down, then millions will be off work for weeks and maybe off longer if they have to stay at home to help other family members who become sick.
Push that sort of chaos into the longer, colder, darker nights of late autumn and winter (when a number of other seasonal illnesses already put huge pressures on the NHS) and you have a recipe for a nightmare beyond the control of the present restrictions and safeguards.
This is not a moment for promissory notes and pointless false hope. Johnson needs to be brutally honest with everyone. As I wrote here last week this is a long-haul battle and the nation (like most others) must be prepared for it.
As Johnson noted on Monday: "We will also be reaching out to build the biggest possible consensus across business, across industry, across all parts of our United Kingdom, across party lines, bringing in opposition parties as far as we possibly can."
He is right. There are no easy options or answers right now. That's what people need to fully understand if he expects them to endure the hardships, stresses and temporary loss of freedoms that will be required for some time.