These are strange, worrying and unprecedented times. Who could have predicted even three months ago that terms such as ‘coronavirus’, ‘self-isolating’, ‘social distancing’ and ‘epidemiologist’ would become regular parts of our everyday conversation?
For our children, COVID-19 is our generation’s AIDS, our parents’ Cold War or our grandparents’ Blitz. It will have a seismic impact on our lives, both in the present and in terms of how it will shape our future attitudes.
I think it would be remiss of me not to capture our thoughts and experiences of learning to live our lives under lockdown conditions. It will be a historic record for, hopefully, all of us to look back on – and a helpful piece of self-therapy for me.
So, where do I begin?
Sunday 15th March
Months and years from now, we’ll look back on today as the day everything changed.
Today had been pencilled in for a visit to Legoland for several weeks. The kids were excited and not even the prospect of a cold, wet day could deter them.
We nearly didn’t go because of the coronavirus risk. We’ve talked about it as a family. But, having weighed things up, we decided to make the most of what could be our last big family day out in a long while.
Ultimately we had a lovely day, albeit one cut short by torrential rain. But it was noticeable how quiet the M4 was, even for a Sunday morning. And the park itself was eerily quiet. Not empty but only a quarter full – enough to leave the atmosphere notably flat.
Nonetheless, a good day. Even if it did feel like that last moment of calm before the impending storm.
Monday 16th March
If yesterday was the day everything changed for us, then today was the day it changed for everyone in the UK.
I was working from home and popped into our local Waitrose first thing this morning to be greeted by empty shelves. Not just toilet rolls, hand sanitiser and painkillers. Now people have moved on to stockpiling staple foods too: dry pasta, baked beans and so on. It will get worse over the next few days.
Our local independent coffee shop has decided to move to takeaway and delivery only. I’m not sure how long they can hold out given that the Costa down the road remains open as normal.
I’ve decided to stop going to the gym; instead I went out for a run with the boys this evening, which was rather fun (even though Toby whinged about it the whole way round).
Am I overreacting, particularly given that I was fine about Legoland yesterday? Maybe. But it’s a sign of how quickly things are changing. Would I go to Legoland again tomorrow? Probably not.
I’m generally a calm and rational person. But if my mindset can change that quickly in the space of a day, it’s no wonder so many people are panic-buying as if there’s an apocalypse coming just round the corner. Who knows? Maybe there is.
We’re at a tipping point. ‘Normality’ and ‘business as usual’ are no longer an option. And yet I’m still oddly calm. In the words of the old REM song, it’s the end of the world as we know it – and I feel fine. Well, I am today at least. Ask me again this time next week.
The ‘Shift Key Prime Minister’
I can’t let today pass without passing comment on the Prime Minister’s first daily press conference. To say I was distinctly underwhelmed would be a model of British understatement. I had low expectations beforehand – but Boris Johnson somehow managed to fall short of them.
Why do I say that? He spoke of how we should do this and why we shouldn’t do that. But he stopped noticeably short of taking any actual action or telling us anything even remotely new.
Nonetheless, the direction of travel is now obvious to those willing to acknowledge it. We can’t be more than a few days away from drastic measures such as school closures and maybe even entire city lockdowns. And yet our Prime Minister refuses to make the call. Instead he’s passed the buck firmly on to us, the general public. Thanks for that.
I’m now calling Johnson the ‘Shift Key PM’ because all he does is shift responsibility and blame. At a time when we need strong, clear, decisive leadership, he offers none. We needed a second Winston Churchill; what we got was Winston the dog from the insurance ads.
Tuesday 17th March
I was going to go into the office today but opted to work from home again. I’m fortunate enough that I can work from anywhere with an internet connection. Why put myself – and others – at risk unnecessarily?
So I now accept that it’s likely to be some considerable time before I’m back in the office again. That hasn’t really sunk in yet. On Friday, I said goodbye for the weekend to my colleagues. It could be months before we say hello again – assuming, of course, that we all survive this unscathed.
Bloody hell, that’s quite a depressing thought, isn’t it?
Herd mentality, not herd immunity
Wherever I am, I like to go out for a walk at lunchtime. I was just returning home when I noticed one of our elderly neighbours leaving her house. She has lived on her own for a while since her husband died and her mental faculties aren’t what they were. So I stopped for a couple of minutes to talk to her, ask if she needed anything from the shops and remind her that we can always pick stuff up for her.
It’s vulnerable people like this for whom I fear the most. We know the elderly are most at risk of dying from COVID-19. The last thing she needs to be doing is to venture into shops regularly, discover that what she needs is out of stock and have to return multiple times.
I’m extremely conscious of not getting drawn into panic-buying and hoarding because it is people like her I will be denying, as well as those who cannot afford to stockpile supplies. Besides, if push comes to shove I know we have more than enough food to last even a family of five for two weeks of self-isolation. But with every passing day, as I see the queue of people outside the supermarkets waiting for them to open get longer and the shelves getting emptier, it’s hard not to get drawn into it too. The government talks about wanting us to develop herd immunity – instead we are already exhibiting herd mentality.
We need to stop doing this. There is enough food to go round. We just need to be sensible about it.
School’s out … for summer?
Isaac’s secondary school announced that they are closing and switching to remote learning as of tomorrow. Thankfully he’s well set up. Everyone already uses Microsoft Teams, email and WhatsApp to share files and communicate with each other. The teaching staff seem well prepared.
I’m not sad about this, in truth. Isaac takes a busy commuter train to and from school every day, which isn’t ideal. When we broke the news to him, he was pleased and excited. I give it two days before the novelty wears off. We’ll see.
The school has been brilliant over the past couple of weeks. Every afternoon, the headmaster has sent an email to all parents updating the latest advice and sharing as much factual information as possible: how many staff are self-isolating, how many children are absent and so on. It’s an exemplar of clear, consistent, open communication that has kept us well informed, reassured and confident. It has been everything that our government’s communication isn’t, in fact.
I don’t think there’s any doubt now that all schools will be closed at the end of this week. The risk is increasing, and too many schools already have members of staff self-isolating and students who are also doing so or are being pulled out of school by (understandably) anxious parents. And closing schools creates a whole host of other issues too.
But it’s going to happen. It’s a big step – and probably bigger than many people realise. There seems to be a common assumption that schools will close for a couple of weeks, the closure will roll into the Easter holidays and then everything will return to normal. I am 99% certain that won’t be the case. There is a distinct possibility that Isaac won’t see his school, teachers or classmates until the beginning of the next academic year – nearly six months from now.
Heather and I have already started to think about how we will combine two working parents with home-schooling three kids over a period of months rather than weeks.
This could get interesting.
Wednesday 18th March
It’s official. All schools in the UK will shut their doors at the end of the week. As of Monday, there will be five of us in our house five days a week, each either working or studying.
More interesting was the news that GCSEs and A-level exams are being cancelled. What did I say yesterday about how long schools might be closed for? To announce this now is a signal that there is zero expectation of schools reopening after the Easter holidays. And the fact that exams have been cancelled and not just delayed is a clear sign as to how much longer we should expect them to remain closed.
I’m grateful we have a large enough house that we can all work in different rooms, even if it’s inevitably going to feel like we’re all treading on each other’s toes. We already have a structured schedule in mind that means the kids will have a combination of serious and fun-based activities throughout the day, while giving Heather and me ring-fenced time to continue working.
That’s the plan, anyway. Get back to me after a couple of weeks and we’ll see how much we’re all fraying round the edges.
What will our high street look like a year from now?
I mentioned our local independent coffee shop earlier. I’ve been making a point of going in every day and buying a coffee, just to support them in this difficult time.
This morning they put up a sign saying they’re closed.
I don’t know the reason for this. Maybe it’s a conscious decision to protect themselves. Perhaps they have developed coronavirus symptoms and are now self-isolating. Or maybe they’ve seen such a drop-off in customers that it’s no longer economically viable for them to stay open, and they’ve shut up shop in the hope of weathering the storm.
Will they ever open again? I hope so.
It’s a dilemma facing many businesses in our little town, a large proportion of which are independents or small local chains. Coffee shops, cafes and sandwich shops. Italian, Indian and Chinese restaurants. Charity shops. Approximately eleventy billion hairdressers.
Small businesses don’t have deep reserves of cashflow. They don’t have easy access to loans at preferential interest rates. It doesn’t take much to turn one into just another statistic in a list of failed businesses.
The longer this crisis goes on, the greater the likelihood that temporary closures will become permanent. In 12 months’ time, our high street may resemble a ghost town. And I doubt Thatcham will be alone in this regard.
Thursday 19th March
I’ve walked past our local Waitrose at 7:59am every day this week. Each day the queue outside has been noticeably longer than the day before. Three people on Monday. By yesterday it was 25. Today it was at least double that, with an (orderly) queue of shoppers revving up their trolleys all the way round the corner.
You could see the anxiety on people’s faces. Will I be able to buy bread and milk? (Yes.) Can I buy meat? (Just about., if you’re quick.) Is there any new stock of toilet rolls or baked beans? (You’re joking, right?)
I can imagine the frantic chatter on local WhatsApp and Facebook groups. Quick, everyone get down here. There was a delivery of fresh chicken overnight but they’ll only let me buy three packs.
When I was a kid, we used to laugh at photos of stoic Russian peasants queuing up outside bakeries that only had three loaves. That’s us now. And it terrifies me how quickly our society is descending into a real-life Lord of the Flies.
On the bright side, the kids all happily watched Countdown this morning. We recorded it for them yesterday, figuring it would be a fun way to work on literacy and numeracy skills. But Toby discovered it on our Sky box and the three of them spontaneously put it on and were glued to it.
Now that’s a win.
I wonder what else we can do? Horrible Histories surely qualifies, but does Race Across the World count as Geography? Or Ninja Warrior as PE?
I’m asking for a friend, obviously.
Social distancing versus social isolation
Today was day two of Isaac studying from home and, as predicted, cabin fever has already set in.
Day one was exciting. Exploring lesson plans and new groups set up on Microsoft Teams. Video conference calls with study buddies. We even went for a companionable walk together at lunchtime. And we worked side-by-side in the afternoon. It went really well – a genuine upside of being cooped up together.
Today he was bored.
Isaac is a social beast. He needs friends to talk to and bounce off. What he doesn’t need is a co-worker (me) who is constantly on Skype calls and shooing him away. I try to make time for him – a coffee break here, a quick check-in on his progress there. But it’s not the same for him.
He understands about social distancing. However, I’ve made a point of talking to him about the importance of avoiding social isolation and the importance of maintaining his mental as well as physical health.
Continued social contact is important. He just needs to find a different way to maintain it.
That’s the universal challenge of dealing with change. It’s exciting at first but any prolonged change quickly becomes draining. Different routines require different behaviours and that can soon deplete our mental resources and well-being.
I’m trying to cope by establishing a new work routine that is as close to my old one as possible, but with some adjustments. An early walk to wake myself up. Blitz through work in the morning, when I’m generally at my best. Take a proper break at lunchtime. Sporadic bursts of activity in the afternoon. Go for a run at the end of the day to create that separation between ‘working day’ and ‘evening’ that I lose through not having a 35-minute drive home.
These things are easily overlooked but important. In terms of my physical health, I am in two high-risk groups – diabetes and asthma – so that is always a concern. But I’m just as worried about my mental health. The best way to approach drastic change is to embrace rather than resist it. And that means accepting that life can’t just continue the way it was.
It’s time to work out what our ‘new normal’ is. It’s time to learn how to live under lockdown.