London diary — freedom, and freedom from fear

We are hurtling towards re-entry. I joined the Saga crowd at Downham Market in Norfolk for my vaccine this month, loudly demanding my Oxford/AstraZeneca shot.

Now that we are awash with vaccines, we are looking ahead to economic, social and cultural renewal. I have the honour of chairing the Gender Equality Advisory Council at the G7 summit, hosted this year by the UK, so am thinking ambitiously about the role of women in re-entry.

After all, remember who got us out of lockdown. For a start, Sarah Gilbert, the scientist who was instrumental in the creation of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and Kate Bingham, who made sure we had the right vaccines and a decent supply. What is the reward for all this female enterprise?

Alas, what we saw during lockdown was women shouldering most of the domestic workload and — owing to the sectors in which they are so often employed — losing their jobs.

Worse, we glimpsed with the murder of Sarah Everard the violence that continues to surround women. “She was just walking home” becomes the quiet slogan that properly enrages us, stirring a movement to tackle the underlying causes of violence against women. Nimco Ali, a Home Office adviser on this issue, messages me: “‘She’ should be able to do things anywhere.”

After the anger comes the examination of policy, culture and language. Another young woman texts me to say that she finds some of the early protests unsettling. “Aren’t we hyping a culture of fear?”

This is an issue for the G7 to think about. The violence is both on the streets and in the home. Earlier this month, the Labour MP Jess Phillips read out in parliament the names of 118 women and girls killed in the UK this year, where a man has been charged or convicted as the primary perpetrator. The GEAC pledges to make women safe, to make sure they are kept in education and to invest in female jobs. Not fear, but freedom.

Government plans for the great reopening on June 21 have gusto, and I am pleased to learn that Sir Nicholas Hytner is one of the opening-up tsars. His is a Puck-like role which means waking the arts from their deep sleep with the words “how, not whether”. There is, of course, an insurance risk. And you are not comparing like with like in the great opening up. Many theatres have already found a way of social distancing, but how on earth can you do that with nightclubs? Next the government will be prescribing socially distanced sex.

There are also some ethical issues on the technology. Aside from the privacy concerns, Covid-free passports favour some groups over others. It is likely to be the young and those in disadvantaged groups who will still be unvaccinated or unable to fork out for the Covid tests that allow them magical entry to summer events. That cannot be right.

Opening may be patchy and contingent but it feels like blue skies again. I have booked a trip to Italy in July for three generations and across continents — we shall see. And my Hong Kong-based son notes that the rugby sevens is going ahead there in November, so that seems to be the official end of their lockdown.

Elsewhere, there is an air of political renewal. I messaged my old colleagues at the Today programme this week to congratulate them on a cracking edition of the programme on Tuesday, and realised that what had gripped me was that the news agenda had moved beyond Covid. We are at last discussing foreign policy and the crisis in Yemen.

My diary is starting to fill up, but it is heavily centred on Wednesdays. I think we can see how the new home and office hybrid working week is going to pan out. When I edited the Evening Standard, we were able to measure the working and social rhythms of the commuting audience by the newspaper returns. There was a sharp decline on the pick-up of newspapers on a Friday, so we surmised that Thursday had replaced Friday as a night out for Londoners. In the new world, it looks as if Wednesday will be the buzziest night of the week.

But what shall we wear on Wednesdays? I did my customary walk-round-the-park work meeting last week. My companion was the elegant chief executive of Walpole, the organisation representing British luxury brands. Eagerly, I offered to buy coffee from the outdoor stall and reached for my purse — into my hessian carrier bag. I had completely forgotten that in the real world it is customary for women to carry handbags. Re-entry is going to mean a new bag, a coat rather than a padded jacket and, finally, although we may stagger about like newborn lambs, heels.

Spring has followed the pattern of lockdown; it has been very start-stop. The ground beneath my primroses is hard and the beech saplings I have planted look shocked and shivering from the strong winds. But I shall have some regrets returning to London as nature unfurls. Wood pigeons are quite different from city pigeons. Blackthorn blossom in the hedgerows signals the end of winter lockdown

Some critics are offended by the £2.6m cost of Downing Street’s new briefing room, but I like its back-to-business professionalism and look forward to seeing the press secretary, Allegra Stratton, rather than Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance and Jonathan Van Tam, the now familiar figures of the Covid era.

Boris Johnson has a knack of presenting himself as the body politic. He was gravely ill when Covid surged across the country. He carried the weight of the nation and then shed a few stone. His personal finances seem to reflect the overspend of the nation. And he is reportedly planning his own wedding in what is going to be the summer of love. The prime minister led us into darkness and we now want him embodying festivities.

Sarah Sands is chair of Bright Blue and board director at Hawthorn Advisors

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