COVID-19 : A Hampshire Diary
The need for social distancing is mandatory and our understanding of Covid-19’s damage has become unavoidable. But what if you contracted the coronavirus in those early days when it seemed like someone else’s problem?
With exclusive access to the diary of one of the first UK Coronavirus victims, we learn about the far-reaching impact our actions can have, and the mental toll of living with the consequences.
We probably shouldn’t have put the jokey captions under the photos of the masks we wore in KL airport. By the time we got back from our Indonesian trip, there had been quite a bit of chat about being careful not to bring anything back with us.
“You may not be welcomed home with the usual warmth,” messaged one person, urging us to self-isolate for a couple of weeks. But we’d been away for two and half weeks and there was a hell of a lot to do.
We look at government guidelines, we talk to a few people and we then write re-assuring emails (at least we think do) to our colleagues saying that we are taking precautions and are following government guidelines, but otherwise we should all proceed as normal. It is true that we did think it was all a bit over the top and we were somewhat amazed. Some people chose to stay at home to avoid us.
Back in Hampshire with an absolutely packed diary. John* is having endless meetings and I am going backwards and forwards daily to London, running workshops, attending dinners, speaking at seminars and on it goes. We were feeling great despite the jet lag and never waking up later than 4 a.m.
Days 7 and 8
It’s the weekend and we have all the children to stay. Brilliant but quiet (relatively speaking). I am a bit tired, maybe, but I’ve had 5 hours sleep a night for the past week and the jet lag from Indonesia is 8 hours so not surprising, I guess.
So, we head into the next week. There are more meetings and John goes to see his bed-ridden Dad and life goes on.
Then we notice by mid-week that we both have a very slight cough. Mine is only recognisable because we are looking for it when John’s is noticeable.
We sit up in bed at 6.00 am and John says he thinks we should report these coughs.
“Really?” I ask.
But we have hardly got a cough and we both feel quite well. Our day is packed with more things we need to do, and my first stop is the hairdresser.
However, we start Googling and go through the multiple-choice questions on the 111 website.
Our hearts are pounding when we tick yes to having been through KL airport and yes to having one of the 3 symptoms of cough, temperature or breathing difficulties.
We have the cough yes. We have never had a temperature through this whole thing, either of us.
We pick up the phone to 111, are asked a series of questions including whether or not we had had any severe internal bleeding in the last 24 hours. It is established that we should be called back by an NHS nurse and meanwhile go no- where and see no one.
Our brave PA, and her daughter come and see if we are ok and disinfect the bannisters. We cancel all our plans and we wait for the callback. A nurse calls us back, establishes we need a test and tells us to wait to be told where to go.
While we wait for the callback, we are having to cancel our plans and are telling people that we are waiting for a test.
We tell them what we have been told which is that it is very, very unlikely that our test will be positive but best to take precautions. At this point, there are 145 cases in the country and about 12,000 people have been tested.
We know it’s all going to be fine but all those around us are getting edgy. We are both thinking about the hundreds of people we have come into contact with.
Healthwise we are a bit off-colour. John has a sleep in the afternoon but frankly, we are fine. We are carrying on, on Zoom.
Finally, we’re told that someone will come to our house and test us.
They arrive in a white van, call from outside to say, that we should open the front door, go upstairs, they will come in, put on protective clothing and then we can come down for the test.
We sit side by side on the dining room chairs, they advance with swabs and the job gets done. Our samples are very carefully wrapped, and we follow the same procedure in reverse for them to leave.
We’ll hear in a couple of days from our GP unless, of course, the sample is positive in which case we would be called by the lab and then contacted by Public Health England.
We know we are in for a dullish weekend but no problem. We are getting used to isolation and it will all be worth it when we can tell everyone we are negative. At this point, we decide that “dry” Lent was no longer on the cards. That was too much. We can’t help but start to think about the consequences of a positive result but to be honest it doesn’t really bear thinking about.
Saturday morning, I take John a cup of tea and we are chatting about our plight when the phone rings. John picks it up and I can see by his expression that this is not the outcome we had anticipated.
It’s the hospital pathology telling us that we had tested positive, both of us, for Covid -19.
My heart sank. This was it, our lives would never be the same again. Would we be responsible for killing 100s of ‘elderly and vulnerable people’?
Only about 200 cases had been confirmed (the news that night said 205, I think). We were told that we should do nothing until Public Health England called us back and told us what to do. So, we waited for their call. John calm and me, less so.
Later on that day, a woman, Sarah* from PHE (who was soon to become an integral part of our existence) calls to discuss who we had been in contact with and at what stage. It all hung on who had been exposed to our symptoms. Given that we had hardly had any symptoms, this was extremely difficult to pin down. However, we thought that we had both been coughing (if indeed I even had a cough) for five days. That meant that we were probably infectious from when we knew we had those symptoms.
Sarah said that the current thinking was that most of the transmission happened in households, that it was passed on by being 2 metres away from someone for more than 15 minutes and mainly through droplets from your cough.
With this information, there were only two people who needed to be informed on paper. They would need to self- isolate for 14 days. Thank goodness we thought, maybe it’s not so bad after all.
Sarah was also at pains to say that we were ill, it wasn’t our fault and that we needed to get well. By now PHE was seeing the terrible mental toll that being diagnosed was having on people.
We get off the phone from Sarah, looked at one another and realised that even if it is unlikely that others have been infected, we do need to tell everyone that we are, just in case. And we need to do this in a way that will calm the panic and make the facts clear. These are uncharted waters and need to follow government guidelines.
Meanwhile, we have another task to track down our children who were with us on the weekend before we had “the cough”. One of whom lives and works at a huge institution. It prompts his quarantine and immediate changes to the institution’s plans and procedures. He knew he’d be known as the man who’d brought Covid-19 there.
In the John and Jane* isolation home, the phone is ringing off the hook as news travels. Everyone is worried. John is confident we have followed government guidelines and is trying to stay calm; I am paralysed with worry and guilt.
All day we make calls discovering that all sorts of people we have seen have symptoms. Everyone in our circle is having to tell their workplaces about their exposure and they are all shutting down. We’ve caused huge businesses to stop meeting face to face.
Being one of our children right now is not much fun.
That night I go to bed convinced that I would rather die than have caused all this misery.
News has travelled all over the world. We are Covid celebrities. People are calling in from Africa, the US, and Kuala Lumpur. Hundreds of texts and emails saying that they are sorry, can they do anything, how ghastly for us, are we very ill?
When people are frightened, they start looking for a scapegoat. We received one famous text:
‘Look what they have done to us now.’
It was sent locally. It draws out what people really think for sure. Fortunately, we have had, mainly, kindness and love.
Results were now starting to come in. Some people we worked closely with had tested positive, others not. The lady we had dropped off to see on a walk at the weekend had tested positive, as had our sons.
By now we have no faith that we know when we were infectious, and we let everyone know to look out for symptoms.
Calling someone up to tell them that you have a positive result for Covid – 19 was like calling someone up to tell them that you have an STI (in fact, that would have been better -at least you’d know whether you had slept with them or not). Most people were great but felt they had to tell everyone they knew, that they’d been exposed to Covid – 19.
Meanwhile, Public Health England is concluding that we had been exposed to it when we got home. KL was relevant because it triggered testing with these very light symptoms. It would also explain why we started experiencing symptoms so long after we had passed through the airport.
So here we are a week on from our diagnosis with a very different government strategy in place. For what it’s worth, we think that it is the right one. Slow it down, don’t strangle everything, get people to be vigilant if they have symptoms, and use the NHS resources wisely.
As Covid – 19 continues let’s make sure that we are kind through it all.
*Names have been changed
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