Reflecting on COVID-19 – what the year has brought us

Kevin Lewis reflects on 2020Kevin Lewis reflects on what the year has brought us, including some new additions to our daily vocabulary.

As we reach the end of a year like no other, naturally we must pause and take stock. I have a feeling that 2020 will be etched in the memories of most of us for the rest of our lives – if not fondly. I know I am not alone in having lost friends and relatives.

Many have not been able to say their goodbyes as they would have wished. That is a bitter and indelible legacy of a year that many will look forward to putting behind them. But I suppose I should thank 2020: it’s certainly given me much new material to look back on. Here are my reflections on the words that entered our daily life this year.

Face coverings 

When masks were in short supply, the public was told that they didn’t make much difference. Then we were all urged to cut up the kids’ t-shirts and recycle the curtains to form ad hoc ‘face coverings’. Not everyone quite got it. With many noses draped over the front, facial hair emerging from several margins. Many masks were even used as fashion accessories or thyroid-warmers.

Hugs and bubbles

There has been a desperate shortage of hugs this year. They are a precious gift and we will know better in future than to take them for granted. Hopefully, we can make up for lost time (and hugs) not too far into 2021. 

Rather like hugs, bubbles are there one minute and gone the next, and 2020 has been something of a bubblefest. We have had household bubbles, childcare, support and extended bubbles. Christmas bubbles, merged bubbles (max two households, max six people, plus endless variations), class, year group and activity bubbles. 

Substantial meal   

When is a Scotch egg a substantial meal? When it needs to be in order to justify serving alcohol alongside it, of course. Does it need to be eaten in order to be ‘substantial’? Once the government defined a substantial meal as one that might be served as a main course at lunch or dinner, the occasional nibble from a plate of salad did the job. COVID-19 has either replaced ‘necessity’ as the mother of invention – or has convincingly proved the point.

Elite sport   

If the pubs were open, there would have been debates long into the night about whether or not a given football team or its hapless back four could possibly be ‘Elite’ when it was regularly getting beaten out of sight. At least the pain was minimised by not being allowed into the stadium to witness the defeats first hand.

A bit scunnered   

Nicola Sturgeon recently introduced me to this one, referring to how the Scottish people have been feeling. Nicola admitted to having been ‘utterly scunnered’ herself a couple of times during the previous week. Me not being familiar with the term, my initial reaction was ‘lucky girl – and in lockdown too!’. But I now stand corrected. My ‘COVID-19 Communicator of the Year’ award goes to Jason Leitch. ‘The Good Professor’ is, of course, one of our own; his Glasgow dental degree an early stepping stone to his current exalted position as the national clinical director for the Scottish Government. 

Jason’s TV appearances and effortless explanations of complex concepts have been a masterclass. He also wins my ‘Crosscourt Backhand’ award for when he put Piers Morgan firmly in his place with the now-legendary riposte: ‘I don’t know where you got your master’s degree in public health from, Piers’. (Jason’s was from Harvard, so he had a trump card in his back pocket.)


This was a strange one. In the context of COVID-19 it often meant ‘an area of low or very low cases, that happened to share a county boundary with other areas 50 or more miles away where the number of infections was much higher’. There were examples where it also meant ‘an area with fewer cases than another area just a few miles away where the infection rate might well be twice as high’.

In the context of international travel restrictions, it meant ‘a country with a worse COVID experience’. Or ‘a better COVID experience’ or ‘a country that has just placed restrictions on travellers arriving from the UK’ or ‘a country that nobody in their right mind would want to visit anyway’ or ‘a country that too many people want to visit’.

Aerosol-generating procedures   

Dentists know about this one – and not in a good way. When I was a lad, most of the aerosol generating and droplet sharing procedures took place behind the bike sheds and fallow time was known as detention.

The F words

F-words have been plentiful this year. Fallow time (the calculation of which itself generated a pandemic of further F-words). Flattening the curve (this means ‘buying time’ or ‘matching supply to demand’). Best of all was ‘Following the science’. This often meant ‘F*** the science: we have the economy and loads of other stuff to factor in’.

The R number

The R number has been up and down since March when it peaked at around four. Since then, it’s been typically somewhere between 0.8 and two, varying according to the prevailing level of restrictions. Curiously, the parts of England with the highest R were not placed into the highest tier (three) earlier this month.

The T words

The T words are mostly painful and include Test, Track and Trace. This gets my ‘Most Slippery Statistic of 2020’ award. Every time you think you understand it, a new condition, caveat or correction is added. It is absolutely vital to getting the pandemic under control, according to Matt Hancock, and take-up of mass testing is the key to exiting Tier 3. Which could explain why so many parts of the Midlands, North East and North West were placed in Tier 3. However, it doesn’t fully explain why London wasn’t. 

The pilot in Liverpool was undeniably successful in flushing out asymptomatic but infected people but less successful at following up whether or not they then self-isolated after testing positive. The resources (including military) thrown at it cannot possibly be replicated more widely in the same timescale, so a more gradual, targeted roll-out becomes inevitable. All the rhetoric is now designed to push back public expectations, to prepare them for a longer haul than the recent encouraging vaccine news was starting to suggest.

The P words   

PPE was on everybody’s lips – at least for those who could get hold of any. Matt Hancock was pictured with rolled-up sleeves carrying a cardboard box into a vast storage warehouse. Thanks for that, Matt – big help! The headlines of how many units of PPE had been procured were very impressive, but quickly became less so when it emerged that each individual glove and shoe covering were being counted as separate units.

Tier 0   

A category applicable only in Scotland, and dictated by the political need to have a tier structure that was different from the one being used in England. It means ‘this is not really a tier at all’ or ‘you are allowed to do virtually everything’. The highest tier of this five-tier structure (Tier 4, naturally enough) means you are allowed to do virtually nothing.

The Rule of Six   

That so few university students seem able to count to six hinted at failings in our education system. But many others – including those old enough to ‘know better’ – could not count to two (as in ‘households’), or to four either.

Places of worship   

When places of worship were allowed to open, there was an unholy rush of other businesses claiming the same on the grounds that they were religiously watching the daily coronavirus briefings as well as regularly praying for additional support from Rishi Sunak. Nice try folks.

Circuit breaker 

The Northern Ireland equivalent of lockdown. The terminology is partly designed to be different, and partly to suggest a shorter and less painful intervention than a lockdown. Unfortunately, the time spent in circuit breakers has exceeded the breaks in between. So perhaps what the people of Northern Ireland really need is for the brakes to be applied to this circuitous rhetoric.


The Welsh equivalent of lockdown and about as effective as the NI circuit breaker. I remember the British Coal [sic] advert with the strapline ‘Come home to a real fire’. I also remember the spate of arson attacks in the late 1970s/early 1980s by the militant Welsh republican group Meibion Glyndwr, which targeted holiday homes and businesses in Wales that English people owned. A TV satire programme at the time ran a famous sketch with a spoof advert ‘Come home to a real fire: buy a holiday cottage in Wales’. I should add, before anyone reaches for the matches or lodges a complaint, that a paternal thread of my own lineage is from West Wales, and my wife is Welsh, too.

On my maternal side, my grandmother had lineage from both Northern Ireland and Scotland, but was herself a Yorkshire lass. She used to say that it will end in tears – usually in relation to what I was getting up to – and she was usually right. 

2020 will end in tiers and we can expect more tiers and tears in the new year, too. But, eventually both will disappear and some kind of normality will return. Hold on to that thought and have as good a break as you feel able to.

This article first appeared in Dentistry magazine. You can read the latest issue here.

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