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Chard Remembers: Finishing my law degree during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic

Emma (Harris) worked virtually with the Museum last summer. She created the interactive programme sharing the memories of evacuee's who came to Chard in 1942. Here she shares her own memories of the first 4 months of the Covid-19 pandemic and while she was completing her three-year Law degree.

All my life I have lived and gone to school in Chard. At the time of the Coronavirus pandemic I was a third-year law student at the University of Nottingham.

In early January the Western world watched with relative unconcern as a disease outbreak developed in the Chinese village of Wuhan.

On the 30th January 2020 the World Health Organisation declared this a global health emergency, with thousands of new cases emerging daily in China. In February, there were murmurs of increasing numbers of cases in Europe, particularly Italy, but ‘normal university life’ continued unphased. By March, however, there was a noticeable shift in the UK’s approach towards COVID-19 and the mood at university. At the time, there was speculation that universities and schools would close soon; it seemed impossible and unbelievable at the time.

On the 4th March, the UK saw their biggest jump in cases yet, with 34 new cases bringing the total to 87. A week later, six people in the UK had died of the virus with a further 373 testing positive. At university, lectures were still going on at this point, with active reassurance that this was safe. However, attitudes were shifting daily, with more talk of closure of the university. The gym, for example, had now cordoned off every other machine to ensure people exercised at a distance from each other. It was only on Friday 13th March that the university decided on real change. In the morning we were told the university would remain open for only another week and, after that, online teaching would replace normal lessons. Also that day, sporting events such as the London Marathon and Premier League football fixtures were suspended.

On the assumption that we at least had a week left of face to face teaching, I told friends of three years that I would see them on Monday. However, a later message from the university that night meant that many of these people I have still not seen and will not see unless or until we go back to Nottingham to graduate. The second message came from the school of law specifically and stated that they had decided to move teaching online a week before the rest of the university. This meant that I had had my last ever university lecture without realising. As a final year student this was overwhelming as the seemingly certain fact of sitting exams and graduating now hung in the balance.

In Nottingham that weekend the normally busy city centre was deserted, with a tense atmosphere as if this was the calm before the storm. On the following Monday my lectures and classes were online or self-taught. I went into the library to work, but as the week progressed, I saw fewer and fewer people in there. By Thursday I stayed in my flat as the government was now urging us to work from home where possible.

That morning, the university suggested we could move home if we wanted to. My friend and I had agreed we would stay until the end of term as this was only two weeks away. By that afternoon, plans had changed again. The university was now telling us that moving home was mandatory for all that could. Mine and my friend’s parents then decided that we were to be picked up on Saturday. In the space of a week, I had gone from expecting to finish my final exams, celebrate in Nottingham and graduating as normal, to being told to pack up three years-worth of belongings and memories. Although I knew it was in the interests of safety, it was really hard to accept at the time and it was not until much later I realised I would not return to Nottingham as a student. At this early stage, I really thought I’d be back to sit exams in a month or two.

The following week I was set up to work and learn from home with lectures and tutorials all now online. By this time there were daily press briefings coming from 10 Downing Street, with billions of pounds worth of loans being promised to keep people in work and businesses afloat. This week, the UK statistics stood at 55 deaths and 1500 cases. At home, my mum had started working from home and had moved her desk into our spare room. Despite schools not shutting until the following Friday, my younger brother’s school had already made the decision to shut. Working from home was far easier than I had expected, but the face to face social aspect was something that everyone missed.

On 20th March, the government orders all restaurants and gyms to close, with the announcement that the government will pay up to 80% of wages for workers at risk of being laid off. The biggest change yet, however, came on the 23rd with the official lockdown announcement. Here, PM Boris Johnson made a televised address to the nation informing us that we should now only be going outside of our homes for food, medication, a form of exercise once a day or to go to an essential job. These measures were designed to ease pressure on the NHS during the peak of infections in the UK. Throughout the pandemic my dad continued to work as a lorry driver, delivering vital food and PPE to shops and hospitals.

Our key workers came to the fore during this time, with weekly claps for the NHS taking place up and down the streets of the UK at 8pm on Thursdays. Soon after his address, PM Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock test positive for the coronavirus. Shops had changed by this time as well, with essential food stores having one-way systems, limits on the number of people in the shop at any one time, and tape on the floor to enforce the 2 meter distancing rule. There was also a nationwide effort to source ventilators and PPE for hospitals. Large capacity venues were transformed into temporary hospitals in the cities, such as the ExCel centre in London and the Exhibition and Conference Centre on UWE’s Frenchay campus in Bristol.

During this period, I was revising and taking exams online. Instead of the usual 2 or three hour in-person exams, we had 5 days from the time of release of the exam question to submit our answers and these were open book to ensure fairness. I would describe the period of March to May as a kind of dream state. Nothing really changed and the days blended into one. However, when we went outside for our daily walk (something to look forward to then) the deserted streets, boarded up shops and social distancing measures reminded you of the seriousness of the ongoing situation. Despite the unprecedented ways of living and working, stories of hope and coming together triumphed during this time. Sir Captain Moore raised £33 million for NHS charities, with streets including mine coming together to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE day at a 2 meter distance. The sudden change has also made everyone far more grateful for the small things, especially spending more time with our families, even if this has meant visiting grandparents from a 2 meter distance in their garden!

Having finished (online) exams, I would normally be going back to work as a waitress at Forde Abbey, but this year I have been on furlough since March. Instead, I undertook more voluntary projects in Chard until we were allowed to safely go back to work. For example, I joined Chard’s Covid-19 support group and rang isolated and vulnerable citizens to make sure they had someone to talk to and could get the food and medication they needed.

The easing of lockdown restrictions arguably created the most frustration. Schools began to allow some year groups to go back, outdoor spaces re-opened and as did non-essential shops and pubs. It was, however, upsetting to see thousands flocking to Bournemouth Beach and Durdle Door. Both saw major incidents declared with drunk and disorderly behaviour, mass dumping of waste and most crucially, complete disregard for social distancing guidelines. Many people felt angry at these individuals, and rightly so. The majority of the public had followed the strict Government rules for the last three months and it felt as though the actions of the minority made these efforts seem for nothing. Tension was also created given that many were not locals and were visitors from the cities who were unaware, or unconcerned, of the pressure and risk they were exposing these coastal towns to, especially given the fewer number of hospitals and resources here.

By mid-July there were 295,000 confirmed cases in the UK, with 45,318 deaths (20th July). Businesses were hesitantly coming out of hibernation, but reminders of the past months were still visible in shops, with masks now being mandatory. Many of these measures will be in force for months, perhaps even years, especially given the risk of an increased infection rate once winter arrives. This is the ‘new normal’.

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