Britain's Darkest Hour?

Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash.

Known as our ‘darkest hour’, Britain emerged from World War II a changed nation. Will a post-Covid Britain ever be the same?

Sat alone at the funeral of her husband of over 70 years, the Queen epitomised the sadness, loneliness and hardship so many have felt during the last year of pandemic. The death of the Duke of Edinburgh, described as the “Grandfather of the Nation”, is just one of many losses suffered this year by thousands across the UK. Although to many the royals are just another family, the loss of a national figurehead seemed particularly pertinent given the suffering and loss we have experienced as a nation.

Undoubtedly this has been an extremely difficult time for many, but how does it compare to other periods, and what can we learn? How we work through this and move on from the pandemic will define us for a generation. This may be our darkest hour but, as with any crisis, there will be changes for the better.

I’ve already used that term, darkest hour. Perhaps I’m guilty of exaggerating the situation we find ourselves in as some in the media have, it’s difficult to say whether this is really our darkest hour as, ultimately, we’re still living through this crisis and therefore can’t yet provide a balanced and full assessment of its impact. In this first draft of history, however, it appears that we’ve lived through the biggest crisis since World War II, the period where the phrase ‘darkest hour’ was coined. That said, the sacrifices we’ve made to our civil liberties are possibly even greater.  

On 23rd March 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered the public to stay at home, just weeks later he was in intensive care with Covid-19 himself. Having survived, he went on to impose national lockdown twice more, but still we have had over 120,000 deaths, one of the highest death rates per capita in the world, our GDP shrunk by 20% in 2020, and Brexit has meant a 40% fall in exports to the EU. Yes, the Brexit effect will get better, and our very successful vaccination programme has led to a swift fall in death rates, which in turn will lead to an economic bounce back, but the nation has been left scarred by the events of the last 12 months and it must be recognised that we have endured great hardship.

During World War II, Britain suffered 450,000 deaths and incurred decades worth of debt and destruction. Obviously, the pandemic is incomparable to this and is on a much smaller scale. But, like the war, the crisis has brought many changes already. There’s been a revolution in home working (who’d heard of Zoom in January 2020), we’re all accustomed to wearing masks and regularly sanitising our hands, and the benefits of global cooperation have become clearer; we are all threatened by the pandemic so all must collaborate in fighting it. Ultimately, though, the most important lesson most of us have learned is to value those close to us.

How do we emerge from this? Without doubt there will be more lessons to learn and, as we continue to learn, various improvements will be made. Perhaps we’ll see another social revolution as was seen under Attlee following the Second World War, which saw the creation of the National Health Service and the modern welfare state. Certainly, the technological improvements we’ve seen are here to stay, the education secretary Gavin Williamson has said there will be no more snow days for schools now online learning is in place, and the health secretary Matt Hancock has started spreading the message that Brits should work from home when unwell in future, something many have become accustomed to already.

For me, the most significant change though is less material, more emotional. As mentioned, we have all learned to value our loved ones more, this will lead to a change in our behaviour as we all learn to love, hug and make time for people we took for granted pre-pandemic. This will make for a friendlier and more stress-free world, where at least in the short-term, people put work to one side as they enjoy a pint with old friends, hug their grandparents, and finally be able to grieve with the support of others.

Watching the Queen alone on Saturday may have brought home to many the darkness of the hour we are living through. Remember, there have been darker days and we will leave this pandemic a better, hopefully stronger, nation.