First published in the NASGP Newsletter in April 2020
In the future, when we look back on this strange period, the experience of all of us needs to be acknowledged, and I’m going back to time BC (Before Covid-19) to track how swiftly we moved from complacent normality to a fearful wartime footing.
1st April 2020
Wild goats wandering in the streets of Llandudno this morning. An April Fool? No, it isn’t. In 2020 April Fools would be tasteless, when something we can’t see has made an April Fool of the whole world.
I’m a retired GP not eligible for return to the front line. Privileged and protected, my husband and I enjoy beauty, exercise and peace in our garden. Outside of our little oasis our rubbish is still being collected, post is still delivered and London bus drivers are dying. I’m glad that the news gives full coverage of the sacrifice of my colleagues, nightmare of working crazy hours without adequate PPE or tests. But some time – some distant time – in the future when we look back on this strange period, the experience of all of us needs to be acknowledged, I’m going back to time BC (Before Covid-19) to track how swiftly we moved from complacent normality to a fearful wartime footing.
Lunch in Soho. We decide to try a well-reviewed small new restaurant. Tasty snacks, but the cutlery is crammed into tin tidies. Impossible to take out your utensils without touching several others. I draw the manager’s attention to the risks. He doesn’t quite understand the problem, so I point out that food safety inspectors and Public Health could close the restaurant.
We finalise all of our bookings – trains, ferry and accommodation – for a walking holiday in Portugal in mid-April.
First Brit dies on the cruise ship Diamond Princess in Japan
Retired doctors may be recalled to form a ‘Dad’s Army’. Patronising both to the Home Guard and to us doctors no longer doing clinical work.
Rembrandt exhibition at the Ashmolean in Oxford. People maintain some distance. Lunch at a gastropub. Same cutlery problem. No doubt it saves staff time to stick it all in a jar rather than wrapping each set in a napkin. OK, they put all the cutlery in the dishwasher at the end of the day, but by 2pm how many people have touched that fork?
Supper with friends. Banter about elbow bumps, loo paper and Lady Macbeth. I wrote a pertinent article about hand-washing for NASGP in June last year.
England/Wales rugby match goes ahead, with BoJo in attendance.
UK supermarkets supermarkets start rationing loo paper and tinned tomatoes. It’s difficult to get on their websites.
Vulnerable friends are self-isolating at the insistence of their children who are supplying their groceries. But who’s going to do the childminding now?
Tomorrow we are due to travel to Ghent to see the Van Eyck exhibition. Should we go? We decide the risk is low if we are careful.
No-one on Eurostar is wearing a mask. We avoid sitting at a table where we’d be in the direct line of droplets from a cough or sneeze from a passenger sitting opposite. In the loos: no water, no towels and not enough hot air to dry your hands. Memo: carry soap, towel and gel. Use paper to open doors. You don’t get much notice of a sneeze so keep tissues easily accessible.
In St Bavo’s Cathedral the restored altarpiece, Van Eyck’s 1420 masterpiece The Adoration of the Lamb glows. But at the exhibition we rub shoulders, literally, with tourists from all over the world.
Ghent’s traditional bars are busy but not jam-packed. And they don’t ask the customers to help themselves to cutlery.
Nadine Dorries becomes the first UK minister to test positive for coronavirus
Local friends invite us round for a meal next week. He’s a very creative cook. We tell them we’ve been exposed to crowds in Ghent. No worries, they say. Dinner will go ahead unless anyone develops symptoms.
Removing the element of touch calls attention to its ubiquity within common gestures. The Brits have become touchy-feely, but now it’s a no-no. Especially touching your face. But you need a straitjacket or boxing gloves to stop doing it.
Coronavirus offers a guilt-free excuse for turning down duty invitations.
We got to Ghent just in time. The exhibition, St Bavo’s , the bars and restaurants have all shut down. But we’re still hoping to get to Portugal. It’s taken a lot of organising and we’ve laid out the money. We get round to looking for travel insurance. Very varied quotes so we decide to decide tomorrow.
Travel insurance now impossible to get. At least EHIC provides basic cover.
Emails tell us that events on our calendar are being cancelled: tomorrow’s Urban Sketchers meeting and going to the pub to watch the Six Nations rugby,so saving us decisions about going out.
Our host calls us to say that he’s going out to the pub the night before our planned dinner. Does that affect our arrangement? It doesn’t take us long to decide, yes, it does, and we cry off.
The Beatles’ Zebra crossing on Abbey Road is deserted. One can cross in safety, free of capering tourists, for the first time in decades.
BoJo reverses the mitigation herd immunity strategy. Instructions to avoid unnecessary social contact including visits to care homes.
We deliver the flowers we had bought for our dinner hosts, whilst maintaining social distance. No hard feelings.
It’s a funny old world when the sick are asked to stay away from doctors.
Is anyone surprised that not everyone is unselfish? Some people behaved badly in the Blitz.
Schools are closed.
Should we ask our cleaner not to come? We need the cleaning and she needs the money.
Asymptomatic people may be shedding C-19 and so a source of infection.
We contact the cleaner and we both agree she should stay at home.
Galleries and theatres are making the decision to close, so no Titian at the National Gallery, no Macbeth at the Globe. The director, my niece, says the last time theatres were closed for pestilence was during the Great Plague.
Only a month since we finalised arrangements for Portugal, but borders have now closed. We’re on the internet trying to obtain refunds from three train companies, one ferry and five guest houses. A bright note: our potential loss is less than the travel insurance we never took out would have cost.
I get out the vacuum cleaner. How does it work?
Lockdown is coming and some people are bolting for places in which they feel secure. Just as in Day of the Triffids. And people are piling into the pubs before they close. Just as in On The Beach.
We decide to go as usual to the farmers market where we buy our fresh food. It’s opening early for oldies. The bus is empty but for us and the driver. At 09.30 the market is quiet. The Big Issue is closing for three months so I buy a copy. The salesman says “I’ll stay alive if I die in the attempt”. I wish him luck.
Full lockdown begins. Ban on gatherings of more than 2 people. No events so no FOMO.
First clapping for NHS workers.
From rubbish collectors to royalty, C-19 is an equal-opportunities infector. And delivery drivers are the new essential workers. Get that, Priti Patel.
Lockdown finally imposed. It’s lovely in our garden. The snails aren’t self-isolating.
I’m making a list of friends’ plans for enforced idleness. My sister has just cleared her garage. That won’t need doing again unless lockdown lasts for years. Friends are planning to repot all their plants, picking up a long-abandoned musical instrument, build model boats, read novels, write novels and dig out those watercolour paints.
Farmers’ market again. Too busy for comfort. The stallholders look tired and the market staff are busy organising one-way traffic and drawing squares and arrows to manage social distancing. It’s hopscotch for giants. Try to pay with contactless, not accepted by five stallholders’ machines. Inserting the card and putting in a pin doesn’t seem very safe. We use cash.
Baker Street and the Marylebone Road, usually traffic-laden and with some of the highest pollution levels in the country, are empty. I vaguely recall an old film about a bomb threat which cleared London. Five Minutes to Midnight? No, Seven Days to Noon. Time was slower in 1950. A relief to close the front door behind us and feel secure at home.
First child in UK dies of Covid-19.
A GP friend is determined not to give up the ‘lady GP’ look, and is consulting wearing pearls over her scrubs.
We are 168,384th in the Ocado virtual queue. We spend the rest of the day organising separate deliveries of potatoes, coffee, parmesan cheese, wine, fresh veg . . .
A virtual meeting with friends over coffee via Zoom. Some weeks ago, BC, I borrowed a book on how to make sourdough bread (technique improving). Zooming into someone else’s home is so near to the real thing that for a while I was kicking myself that I didn’t use the opportunity to return their book.
Another friend who normally doesn’t move from the sofa is doing 10,000 steps round his kitchen table, and since his daughter does their shopping he has no choice but to eat vegetables.
It’s nearly five weeks since we had a haircut. As amateurs attempt to cut their own hair, will shaggy and uneven tonsures become Mode-C-19?
How are those Covid-19 projects going, friends?
BC seems nearly as long ago as BCE.
Doctors and nurses are dying. I sign petitions for proper PPE and then we go outside to clap. In the new reality we are daily amending our attitudes and changing our behaviour. General practices are throwing out the bureaucracy and concentrating on the real work. GPs at local practices are consulting from Shropshire, Nice, probably Australia. Nothing, not general practice, nor shopping, office work, transport or day-to-day life, will ever be the same again.