Wednesday 25th March 2020

Daily Diary: Graciousness in Accepting a Difficult and Generous Offer

It’s a beautiful spring day, with blue skies and the beginnings of sunshine that feels warm. I had trouble sleeping last night, at least for a while, and I think it may be to do with the anxiety and frustration I’ve been experiencing with online ordering. Ocado takes fifteen minutes to even get to their website. Tesco has neither a delivery slot nor an opportunity to collect from its specified stores. Morrisons have no delivery slots and have folded up the customer collect service they were advertising only a few days ago. Sainsbury’s have excluded newly registered customers. No joy with Asda either. It means that if Vicky and I want fresh food and household essentials we’ll have to do it in person and break the security isolation confers on us, both personally and as members of a wider community trying to protect itself.

I feel like a rock blenny – one of those cute little fish you come across if you’re pottering around the seashore – tucked away in a wee crack on the seabed, safe, snug and secure. That is until I have to feed, and maybe gather the fish equivalent to toilet paper, at which point I become exposed to the forces of natural selection. I’ve seen it in more David Attenborough documentaries than immediately come to mind and now, shit, it’s happening to me!

My wee crack on the seabed is in actuality a sofa I can stretch right out on, and it’s there, snugly, with a cup of Colombian coffee, freshly ground and scrupulously filtered, as if I’m demonstrating in a science lesson to twelve-year-olds, that I’m watching Prime Minister’s Questions on BBC Two. It’s an extra-long one as Parliament is about to go on leave. Boris Johnson is asked twice about the problem Vicky and I happen to be encountering and he doesn’t answer it, other than bumbling on about volunteers and elderly people being looked after. He’s clearly totally out of touch with people’s real-life problems and comes across as not wanting to emotionally engage. Putting it more simply he doesn’t seem to care. He’s equally equivocal about non-key workers. He abrogates leadership and leaves it to the employers to decide. It’s particularly an issue with the construction industry, but far from exclusively so. It’s mixed messaging and when I listen to LBC afterwards there’s phone call after phone call from deeply upset members of the public.

The other big issue is the lack of routine testing for Covid-19, even for NHS staff. It’s like we’re trying to navigate in fog, but we’re totally lost because we couldn’t be arsed to recharge the battery on the GPS.

Our daughter Emily gives us a call on and makes Vicky and I an offer. She is shopping for her husband Tom and herself and she’s volunteered to shop for her stalwart neighbour, Metzi. She’ll shop for us too. There is that inner instinct as ageing parents to resist such offers, but she really wants to and there is a graciousness, I believe, in accepting generosity, as there is in providing it. It does answer unspoken prayers, preserves our isolation and is very kind. It also takes us out of the frame of becoming numbers in the stats tables when the pandemic peaks, as it’s expected to soon. In a darkly nerdy way I’ve been following the grim stats, especially since starting this diary project. I figure we’ll be where Spain is now on April 3rd, and Italy, April 6th.

Frightening stuff!

But having said that, it is the biggest, most epic event in all our lives. It’s actually hard to tell if we are in a war with nature, or with all those aspects of our collective selves that choose to deny it.

Outside the front window is Plumstead Common. Sometimes it’s hard to resist watching people doing the many things they do on commons (I still have a copy of Desmond Morris’s ‘Manwatching’ on my bookshelf). At the weekend things were worrying – groups in close proximity, hugging, kissing, high-fiving and so on.

Now people are going around in ones and twos.

The buses passing the other side of the green are either empty or close to being so.

Behaviour has changed.

The Bigger Picture: A Close-Run Thing.

“This is going to be a close-run thing,” England’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Witty declares.

Best estimates give the UK a three-week race to buy time for the NHS. Images of overwhelmed intensive care units in Italy still haunt people’s minds. The battle to keep the virus at bay has been lost. Now the country has to engage in the battle of its containment.

As if to show there is no limit to Covid’s reach Prince Charles, 71, the heir to the British throne, tested positive for the coronavirus. He and his wife, Camilla are isolating themselves in Scotland. It’s been about a fortnight since he last saw the Queen and even longer since he met with the PM.

The UK has a number of factors working against it – being at a global crossroads (the borders are still open), the wrong demographics, including the vulnerability that countries with older populations are now known to have, and a government that has been slow to act. But at present there is a lot of goodwill in the British population, as demonstrated by 405,000 volunteers signing up to support the NHS during the coronavirus outbreak. The volunteer programme was only launched on Tuesday, and will see people called on to deliver medicine, food, or to contact people who are alone.

Bill Gates, who has long had a philanthropic interest in supporting research into epidemics, said the best-case scenario is six to ten weeks of total isolation.

It will take a lot of good will to achieve anything near that. The British lockdown isn’t as strict as others. Behavioural experts say that any measures from government will require the consent of three quarters of the population to work.

So it needs nurturing and there are signs that some ministers are aware of that fact. Communities secretary Robert Jenrick announced all council car parking would be made free for NHS and social care staff. Those who petitioned for this very practical step are delighted by the success of their campaign. Transport secretary said MOT tests would be suspended for six months, while Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham welcomed a £5 million package to pay for 1,000 rooms to house the homeless.

Worries remain among the public. In London, although those travelling on the Underground were much fewer – 88 percent less year on year – services had reduced by a similar order of magnitude, exacerbated by workers in self-isolation. The result was rammed carriages and crowded platform and egg on the face of Transport for London along with news and social media feasting on the troubling spectacle.

Not all bosses are benign about their workforces as they consider the economic impact of lockdown. Some still pressurise their employees to come in regardless. “I’m pregnant and I have asthma but I was still being told to come into work.” Says one woman who requested to work from home because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Generation rent, along with the long-term change from social housing to private landlords, face the anxiety that comes with uncertainty about eventual eviction with lost jobs meaning lost rent.

All of these fears and certainty are contributing to the fact that we’re facing not just coronavirus, but a mental health epidemic too. Some fear they’ll never touch their loved ones again, others looking at their own mortality in the eye.

In spite of that the Coronavirus Bill, giving minsters extensive emergency powers is set for Royal Assent after the Lords approved it, and there was barely a murmur from a public, that a year ago was on the streets in the hundreds of thousands, against the handing of draconian powers to politicians with a poor track record of being trustworthy. The Commons rose for an early Easter recess, with Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg hinting it may not return on April 21st as planned.

While the culture war surrounding Britain’s relationship with the European Union has been consigned to political backwaters, the latest skirmish about extending the transition period and avoiding a No Deal being something that happened on the sidelines.

For now, most are willing to put politics aside and show solidarity with those in the front line. Following moving scenes for Italy and then Spain and as part of a phenomenon that will spread worldwide, across the Britain Clap for Carers round of applause will honour the NHS tomorrow, Thursday 26th March at 8 pm.

Across the pond a ray of sunshine beams through the dark, heavy clouds of the coronastorm. The Senate and the Trump administration agreed early this morning on a roughly $2 trillion stimulus bill to help the US economy weather Covid-19, including $250 billion of direct support to workers. There had been hope from the Democrats during the much wrangling in Congress that climate change control measures could be built into the package but Mr Trump threatened to veto any measure with such provisions included. It didn’t happen. Nor did the bill include $3 billion for the government to buy oil and fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a provision sought by Republicans and President Trump.

The negotiations might have been convoluted – frustratingly so, but in fairness, they were tough. To all intents and purposes American businesses were being triaged. Which industries deserved a lifeline, and which should be left to succumb in changed market forces? Questions like to what extent do airlines need supporting and does the cruise industry deserve a bailout?

Global markets rose today on the news, following a major rally on Wall Street. President Trump, despite concerns from health experts that it would result in unnecessary deaths, announces that he wants America open for business by Easter, April 12th. A Fox News host dubbed his plan “a great American resurrection.”

That might be hyperbole but the president is on a high.  A Gallup poll published yesterday shows Mr Trump’s overall approval rating is at its highest point in his presidency, at 49 per cent. Sixty per cent of Americans gave him positive reviews for his handling of the coronavirus situation.

At this early stage of the pandemic Americans are blaming the virus, rather than him.

At least for now.

It typifies what many western nations are facing. Like reaching for the credit card when the debit card would be denied paying the bill.

Can governments protect jobs and markets? No one knows for sure. The size of the debt is unprecedented in almost everyone’s lifetime, being compared to the aftermath of the Second World War. How they set about doing it is equally unclear at the moment, but one thing’s for sure – a recession is on the way. As the whole world enters a new era of sovereign-debt management.

Central banks are already buying up large quantities of government debt as if it’s the hottest commodity in town. A weak recovery could push central banks to finance large fiscal deficits with freshly printed cash on an ongoing basis. With most of the world in debt and with a need to restimulate economies coming out of the pandemic a massive paradigm shift about international finance may well be on its way.

It may go as far as the core belief of indefinite growth at the heart of the world economic system being turned on its head. With climate change looming that might be timely.

But the stark fact for now is that businesses at all levels face deep uncertainty. In many cases their individual crises, from small one-person enterprises to large organisations, are existential. And there’s nothing quite like an existential crisis for making someone fight their corner, come what may. Although the goodwill is mostly there at the moment, the seeds are being sown for possibly the greatest leitmotif of the whole pandemic, especially in free market democracies – what comes first, healthcare or business?

A profound culture war is establishing its roots, with hundreds of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars at stake.

Not everyone appears to see it coming.

Some do:

“This is probably unprecedented. It’s bleak.”

Says Greg Wawro, professor of political science, Columbia University.

If anything, that’s an understatement.

It seems that the more humanity tries to retreat into narrow, infection-free habitats, so it withdraws from reaching out. The global space industry among the first to be hit hard, launches stopped, missions put on ice and entire companies shut down for the foreseeable future. When you consider that America could manage to put a man on the Moon at the height of being involved in what seemed like at the time to be the all-consuming war in South East Asia, the contrast is striking.

Instead our collective ingenuity turns inward and focuses on a spiky little point seven millionths of a millimetre across. Billionaire James Dyson takes up designing and building hospital ventilators. A 3D printing unicorn, Carbon, switches from trainer soles and dentures to nasal swabs and facemasks for healthcare workers. A number of other 3D printing companies are making similar moves, demonstrating how rapidly adaptive this young technology is. Engineering researchers are also stepping up to the mark with a joint team from Oxford University and Kings College London awaits government approval to manufacture the OxVent, a flat-pack ventilator that could save thousands of lives from coronavirus.

Even companies that have been successful in adapting to the pandemic are not without problems, though. The increased activity in at least ten Amazon distribution centres in the US becomes a factor in them becoming local hot spots, where staff have tested positive for coronavirus. The company says it will step up its cleaning efforts, but it is reminder that what has become known as ‘the frontline’ goes beyond health, social care and transport workers and a reminder about how vulnerable our infrastructure can be.

It’s that vulnerability that magnifies every glimmer of hope. So that when the coronavirus ‘finger-prick’ test for antibodies ‘available in days’ is described as a ‘game-changer,’ it misleads, as it can only show if someone’s been infected, as opposed to the swab or PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test which detects the virus itself. Equally, following patients’ physical discomfort with swab tests, and even horrific misinformation about swabs entering the brain via the nose, the news that patients might be able to self-administer, with the bonus of saving healthcare workers from the risk of exposure, the fact that self-testing is likely to lead to false negatives because the average person is not especially skilled at showing swabs up their noses (it’s hard to find non-medical examples, even as a fetish) and other amateur procedural slip-ups are quietly passed by.

But it’s only human to live in hope. It springs eternal, as the saying goes.

So when Professor Sharon Peacock, Director of Science for Public Health England, announces that three and a half million coronavirus tests have been bought and would be available in the ‘near future,’ Chief Medical Officer, Chris Witty later cautioned the test was not something “that you will be suddenly ordering on the internet next week.”

As if to demonstrate Covid-19’s relentlessness India has become the latest country to go into lockdown in a bid to curb the spread of Covid-19. It means 1.3 billion people must stay in their homes for three weeks. Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowledged that the lockdown would create “a very difficult time for poor people,” in a country where hundreds of millions are destitute, have no safety net and face ruin.

Enforcement is often brutal and in the era of smartphones doesn’t escape our countless, collective, additional eyes. Multiple videos have been captured of police giving anyone they catch on the roads beatings to be remembered, including doctors trying to reach hospitals, delivery men and people looking for food. The ban also includes all religious services, regardless of faith.

Neighbouring Pakistan is not so draconian. It currently has many more cases of Covid-19, with a large religious gathering in Lahore and the return of Shia pilgrims from Iran as causes of widespread infection, but the government was astute enough to work through its Islamic faith communities, urging imams to discourage collective worship, suggesting that the faithful pray at home instead.

Somehow, lockdown in my neck of the woods feels less severe and there’s a connectivity to make the experience of entering the new reality more palatable.

Here are some examples:

  • Nerd immunity: In coronavirus lockdown, sports fans turn to video-gaming contests. E sports players are reaching huge audiences from their homes. Conventional sports bosses want to do the same.
  • Joe Wicks becomes the nation’s PE teacher, giving stir-crazy children at 9 am on weekdays his free online PE sessions. Toddlers to grandparents get involved.
  • Britons confined in their homes are warned by Ofcom to avoid using microwaves to boost their internet speed.
  • Comedian Lee Mack is self-isolating and can’t escape an endless torrent of jokes about him Not Going Out.
  • BBC News has suspended plans to cut 450 jobs as it faces demands of covering the pandemic. It has already delayed the end of the free TV licence scheme for all over-75s.
  • Many restaurants have stopped dining room service and are only doing delivery. For a number the fear about take-out food not being safe remains.
  • There are fears too that some animals will die because shelters are struggling due to Covid-19.
  • While playing on the insecurities that the pandemic brings, hundreds of e-commerce sites are popping up to sell products that they claim help fight the coronavirus, and many of them are being shut down for making exaggerated claims, or selling phantom goods.

Across the pond the new reality is similar, yet different.

  • About 60 per cent of the country’s new confirmed cases of the coronavirus were in New York City metropolitan area. Such is the concern about New York being a high-risk area that Vice President Mike Pence has advised people who have passed through or left the city recently to place themselves in a 14-day quarantine.
  • Recently closed hospitals are now being reopened in preparation for a surge of coronavirus patients.
  • The first small clinical trial of chloroquine shows that the drug shows no benefit. President Trump’s recent declaration that it could be an effective medication against Covid-19 resulted in a mad rush on the medication, to the loss of those needing it for other conditions such as malaria, amoebic dysentery and lupus.
  • Yellowstone, Grand Teton and the Great Smoky Mountains national parks were closed, after concerns about crowding.
  • Coronavirus fears are causing a run on firearms and ammunition and there are more first-time buyers in stores. “People who were anti-gun their whole lives are now making purchases,” says one seller.
  • As state governments curb commerce, cannabis dispensaries are generally being categorised as essential – listed alongside pharmacies as too important to close. Even recreational retailers are remaining open.

More locally, I get three messages. The first is from Tesco, the supermarket I do most grocery shopping at:

Safety for everyone: Social distancing

Floor marking in our car parks will help you to maintain safe distances when queueing. Where necessary, we will limit the flow of people coming into our stores to ensure they don’t get too congested. Hand sanitisers are being placed around our stores for customers and colleagues to use, as well as extra cleaning products to wipe down your trolley or basket. In some stores, we will introduce directional floor markings and signage, to create a safe flow around the store. New floor markings will help you to keep a safe distance from others while waiting to pay. We are installing protective screens at our checkouts. Where possible, we will create separate entrances and exits to our stores, so that it’s easier to keep a safe distance from other shoppers.

Supporting our colleagues

We are fully supporting our team of more than 300,000 Tesco colleagues, many of , many of whom will be affected by this situation personally or will need to care for their own loved ones. The countless messages of gratitude I’ve received are testament to the incredible job they are doing, at a time when our stores have never been busier. Your small gestures and kind words really do go a long way.

We have almost 3,000 colleagues over the age of 70 and we are fully supporting them, as well as our vulnerable and pregnant colleagues, with 12 weeks’ fully paid absence. Colleagues who are in isolation are receiving full pay from their first day of absence, so that nobody finds themselves in a situation where they have to work when unwell. To help support our team, we’re recruiting an additional 20,000 temporary colleagues. We’ve already appointed 12,500 new colleagues, but we will need more. We are also bringing in 8,000 new colleagues in driving roles, and we’re training them as fast as we can.

Requests from customers

Please check your store’s opening times in advance. Before you leave home, please bring enough bags for your shop. If it’s raining don’t forget an umbrella too, in case you need to queue outside the store. Try to shop with no more than one other person, which will help to reduce the number of people in-store at any one time. Please use our cleaning stations to wipe your trolley, basket or Scan as you Shop handset. If possible, use card or contactless payments. Please avoid shopping during our dedicated times for vulnerable and elderly people and NHS workers, and be kind to our colleagues as they’re working hard to serve you; we’re all in this together.

The second is from my nearest Toyota dealer:

Toyota (Jemca):

In light of the current coronavirus situation, our number one priority is the safety and well-being of all employees, customers and suppliers, Jemca will be closing from Tuesday 24th March until further notice and advice from the Government. However, we will endeavour to ensure emergency workers and NHS staff are kept mobile if their vehicle is off the road. Sorry for any inconvenience that this may cause but it is essential we follow the guidelines for everyone’s wellbeing.

The third is from my local Nextdoor group:

Hello everyone. I offer online Italian lessons for children and adults for different purposes. If interested please contact me on [Number] Thank you. Tiziana.

For a moment I’m tempted to learn Italian.

It doesn’t last.

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