Debbie and I are relatively lucky. We are retired but still under 65, so not in the highest risk category, although our daughter Alice has Type 1 Diabetes. We are not health workers on the front line, daily facing the danger and stress of dealing with victims of COVID-19. We haven’t been laid off from work without pay: we’re not self-employed workers forced to suspend trade: we’re not wondering how we can meet our next rent payment. We don’t live in closely packed housing where distancing is impossible. I’m not confined on my own, contemplating an indefinite period without company. Our house is large enough that we can get away from each other when we need to, and we have a garden to sit in when the weather is good. I understand that the Coronavirus crisis will be much more difficult for many other people, and offer this diary well aware that we are (we hope) experiencing this crisis at the shallow end.
Monday 23 March 2020 – Day 0
We are all at home: our younger daughter Alice still lives with us, and out older daughter Rachel, working from home, has decided she would rather be in rural Chorleywood than in her flat with friends in north London. Choose your prison with care, we said, you may be there a long time. So it feels quite jolly, having the four of us together, and after eating beef casserole for dinner (with chips as I couldn’t find normal spuds) Debbie catches the holiday mood by setting a fire in the garden, and we go out and toast marshmallows around the camp fire after dinner.
We’re not normally a family for watching political broadcasts, but this one was going to be important. I turn on the TV a little early, to be assailed by the closing minutes of Eastenders, but soon it is 8:30, and Boris Johnson appears on screen. He could not have known that his Winston Churchill moment would come so soon.
As we watch, Alice comments that she feels like we are watching history, that this speech will be remembered and recycled as if it were wartime. Time will tell whether Johnson turns out the Chamberlain or the Churchill of this war: our view is that he is doing his best to appear serious and statesmanlike, but that he is acting a role, rather than living it. His attempt at gravitas is undercut by his track record of flippancy – a jokey comment seems likely to emerge at any time. But he is fortunate in that people will compare him with Donald Trump, whose response to the crisis has been to try to dismiss the problem, to brag about his TV ratings, to paint the virus as a Chinese (or Democrat) plot and to insult journalists who ask him questions.
To someone who has spent over sixty years in the relative calm of post-war Britain, what Johnson says is astonishing. The December election seems a very long time ago now, but imagine we had been told that by March, Johnson would announce that people would be confined to their homes except for very limited purposes: moreover, the opposition would think he should have acted sooner and gone further.
We agree that when normality resumes, we would like to look back on the lockdown period and celebrate what we have enjoyed, and what we have achieved, rather than just bemoaning lost holidays, gigs, theatre trips and family visits. With this in mind, we go online to order deliveries of materials for redecorating both girls’ bedrooms. I’ll let you know how that goes. This burst of plan-making raises our spirits, and we go to bed in a positive mood.
Tuesday 24 March – Day 1
This is going to be a long haul. Debbie has a rare personality disorder which results in her sometimes finding me extremely annoying, and I don’t fancy my chances being stuck with her for a long period in a house where a meat cleaver is to hand. So often do I express this unease, the predictive text on my iPad now automatically offers the word “cleaver” to follow “meat”. I spread the word in the hope that if it is later said, for example, that I died when my meat-cleaver juggling act went tragically wrong, you will treat that version of events with scepticism.
We need some shopping: milk, meat, bread. Normally I’m happy to let Debbie do the shopping, but of course now that it’s deemed dangerous I realise it’s man’s work. So I head down to the village, and the parking is a joy. The butchers’ shop has a sign limiting entry to three customers at a time, and two men stand outside on the pavement, two meters apart. That’s what a queue looks like now, and I join it. An elderly couple stroll past, arm in arm, in a leisurely paseo taking in the atmosphere, making no attempt to move further from the queue.
When I get in the shop I eye three medium sized chickens on the counter, and ask if they have a larger one. The lad goes out to the back and brings out a huge chicken. I’m tempted to stand there and buy more meat while I can, but that would be unpatriotic. I will already be greeted as a hero when I arrive home with the chicken – no need to overdo it.
The pharmacy is a smaller shop, and limited to one customer at a time: there’s no queue, I pick up the prescription and leave. The Co-op is much busier, with customers carefully manoeuvring their trolleys around each other, apart from one workman in a grey tracksuit who seemed to be doing a random walk up and down, and a woman keeping no distance at all, nearly barging people’s shoulders as she swept past.
It is another beautiful day, and we’re relieved that we can still take the dog for a walk. Betty can take some credit for inventing Social Distancing: ever since she came to us in November she has operated a two metre exclusion zone, sometimes two hundred metres. Perhaps it’s her mission to protect us from friendly bouncy dogs. She’s one grumpy lady, and I fear she will never be trusted off the leash when other dogs are around.
With the four of us sitting on the patio having lunch, it’s hard to feel the air of crisis. Having endured an extremely wet and windy winter, it feels particularly good to sit in the warm spring sunshine. As Debbie and I are retired, we’re accustomed to sometimes pottering around at home doing bits and pieces, so it just feels like a day with an empty diary. But there are quite a few of those at the moment. Hard to believe that we were rubbing shoulders with 3,500 other people at the Hammersmith Apollo enjoying Elvis Costello just eleven days ago. We shouldn’t have gone, and we shouldn’t have been allowed to go. Or that just eight days ago I was enjoying an eight mile walk and pub lunch with the U3A walking group.
The only change in routine is having Rachel home. Perhaps this is the phoney war, and long may it last. If the lockdown continues for a long time, we might start to see shortages of food, power cuts, water supply problems, and phone and network outages. And we’ve read about the pop-up hospitals and temporary morgues in Spain and Italy.
I read an encouraging article in the Financial Times quoting an epidemiologist from the University of Oxford suggesting that Coronavirus might already have infected 50% of the population, so the epidemic might be much nearer its peak – and therefore its decline – that we had thought. Unfortunately this study has not yet been peer reviewed, and Rachel tells us that the assumptions made there about the spread and lethality of the virus had not been borne out by the experience in Lombardy.
We should have been seeing The Upstart Crow in the West End tonight starring David Mitchell. But here’s no comfort like an old movie, so we settle down to enjoy the goofy charm of Jimmy Stewart in The Shop Around The Corner before retiring to bed.
Wednesday 25 March – Day 2
Another beautiful sunny day. My turn to take Betty out first thing, and bring the coffees back to bed. After breakfast I go for a nice easy paced run along the Chess valley from Chorleywood House to Latimer. The scenery is beautiful as ever, but it’s still very muddy underfoot, and at one point I slip once then slip again while trying to regain my footing, and fall slow-motion on my hands and knees in the mud. Luckily I’m not injured, and I look around for grass to wipe my hands clean, but spot baby nettles lurking amongst it. I complete the run, and when I get home Debbie consoles me with “Ooh, you’ve had a fall, dear.”
In the afternoon Rachel goes out for a walk/run, using episode 1 of a couch-to-10k podcast. I really hope she keeps it up.
In the news a couple of business leaders have kept up their track records of never missing an opportunity to be a git. Tim Martin of the JD Wetherspoon pub chain, having argued unsuccessfully that he should be allowed to keep his pubs open because his customers (many of whom are elderly) were not at risk, is now defying a government request that businesses should continue to pay their staff while they are closed, instead recommending that they should seek work with Tesco’s. Meanwhile Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct chain has argued that their stores should remain open as an essential service, because exercise has been recommended, and you can’t go for a run without an Arsenal away strip.
I try to get my head around how the COVID-19 episode might change things permanently. To start the ball rolling, here are some predictions which will probably look ridiculous in a couple of years time:
– newspaper print circulations will fall dramatically in the short term as the older demographic stays indoors. Newsagents have been deemed “essential” – perhaps because Johnson’s government has such dependable allies in the tabloid press – but it is a brave pensioner who will make a daily trip to the shops if his delivery is suspended. My guess is that many of these older readers will get used to consuming their news online, and will not go back to printed newspapers when normal conditions resume – accelerating the decline of the paper press. There may be some wishful thinking in this forecast: I for one would not miss the toxic influence of The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express.
– businesses will become accustomed to their staff working from home, and will gain more experience of which employee tasks can be performed remotely: this will make them more willing to allow their staff to work from home. But employees should be wary of celebrating this new freedom: in the long term, pay will be lower for home workers because of their lower expenses and greater convenience, and because of the larger pool of potential recruits. And of course, what can be done remotely in Britain can be done from anywhere in the world, which could lead to further outsourcing. We may see offices becoming much smaller.
– there will be a running and fitness boom. Boris Johnson gave us permission for one outing a day for exercise – with the option of walking, running or cycling – and no doubt this has made people feel they should claim their entitlement, and put the idea of exercise into their heads. Instead of fretting about what they can’t do, some people will think about what they can do, like prisoners exercising to keep fit. Of course many will get bored and give up, but as a keen runner, I hope that a good number of the people now exiled from gyms will discover the joy of running and cycling outdoors, and will never look back.
– as soon as they reopen charity shops will be hit by a tsunami of stuff that people are throwing out: so many people are using the time to declutter and deep clean.
Thursday 26 March – Day 3
We spot a couple of roe deer in the front garden when we wake up. I imagine we will see many wildlife pictures in the coming weeks, when foxes and birds of prey start to encroach on normally busy city streets.
We walk Betty through the woods on a favourite route which usually takes us to the wonderful Muddy Boots cafe at the garden centre. Alas, not today. A man runs past who looks to me either a beginner, or a lapsed runner taking the opportunity to get back to fitness. Good luck to him, I hope he stays the course. But the malicious part of me pictures him in six weeks’ time in his pyjamas at 3pm, sporting a straggly beard, eating baked beans out of the tin.
Alice gets up so early today that she has time to eat breakfast a good hour before lunchtime: house rules therefore allow us to share a can of Heineken with lunch, taken on the patio in the sun again.
All kinds of fun diversions have sprung up in the first few days of lockdown: online quizzes, virtual dinner parties, free opera and theatre streaming, a bird watching challenge. One friend whom I meet for lunch about once a year called me on FaceTime to catch up, and must have been amused to watch me fumbling with the technology. I see numerous posts of people cleaning their houses, and launching energetically into new projects.
Go for it guys, all great ideas. But I’ve seen it before in the first mile of a marathon: runners high-fiving spectators, whooping, leaping in the air for photographers. It’s a long haul people, pace yourselves.
At eight o’clock I go out from dinner and toot the car horn in recognition and thanks for the health workers, but then think I perhaps showed my appreciation in the wrong way, and should have banged a wooden spoon on a saucepan in the approved style. We live in a country lane, it doesn’t have the acoustics of a block of flats, but I still could hear the sound from several places.
Friday 27 March – Day 4
A beautiful run through the countryside to Amersham and back, but I regret the choice of route: there are constrained narrow footpaths where I have to wait for walkers to clear before I can pass at a safe distance. I won’t use that route again for a while.
We do our Tesco online delivery shop: we booked a slot for tomorrow morning two weeks ago. We hit eighty items limit: it sounds like plenty, but as there are no deliveries available for three weeks and venturing out is hazardous, it does make sense to try to stock up a bit. Quite a few things are unavailable, but not bad considering.
My cousin Phil has been having a declutter, and has sent through a few old photos he has come across. Not that we’re bored at all, but we decide to recreate one from March 1997, and it goes down a storm on Facebook. They’re probably indulging me, I guess it looks like I’m going crazy already.
I’m trying to read His Bloody Project
by Graeme Macrae Burnet,
(those prints are part of the design, honest) but struggle to settle to it: Coronavirus has us all in a state of anxiety, and I keep flicking through the latest news on my iPad. This afternoon it is announced that Boris Johnson has tested positive, but has mild symptoms. We wish him a speedy recovery, of course, but it’s tempting to conclude that he hasn’t himself been following the guidance he’s been giving out. That would be classic Boris, rules are for other people. He’s soldiering on though, so no need to panic.
One positive I’ve noticed is that since the crisis began, my email inbox is markedly better quality. Among the messages from businesses I haven’t used in two years telling me how they’re looking after me in these unprecedented times, there are many more messages from people I care about. Quite a few concern cancelled plans, of course, and maybe some just wonder if I’m still alive. But the extra contact is welcome.
After dinner Debbie and I sit down with wine and Doritos and join a video conference with our monthly poker group. After a bit of fiddling with and giggling about the technology, the conversation is lively and entertaining, and a welcome piece of social interaction. No poker though. The big feature tomorrow is the Tesco delivery. Woo hoo!