I’ve had several official letters recently (including two in one week) telling me to look out because I’m a ‘clinically extremely vulnerable person’. They’re signed by ‘Matt’, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Another government minister, Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, signs them too, but he keeps his distance (and both his names). I’ve tried to explain to Matt’s representatives on earth that I had Covid-19 in the middle of March, that I had a positive antibody test in May and that I’m probably no more vulnerable than he is. But the letters keep coming. I somehow failed to become a statistic last year.
I had hoped that proof I’d had the virus would be cause for celebration, perhaps some envy, and a thorough loosening of the rules. I was disappointed. The official guidance remains the same. People still step out into the road when they see me; some friends even wear transparent plastic gloves when we go for a walk. When we could still visit people, they would open their windows when I came in. I have been publicly reproved for taking off my mask when it threatened to suffocate me, was steaming up my glasses or robbing me of my hearing aids. No one quite believes in my immunity and I’ve been warned that thousands of people have had the virus twice. I hope they’re wrong, though we may all have it again in a year or catch another strain, and become used to an annual Covid injection.
At the beginning of January I had my first vaccination (the Pfizer one) in one of my borough’s many outposts, alongside some well-behaved coevals, and at an unknown point in the future I will have the second. There’s confusion over this, of course. The government changed its mind as the case numbers began to shoot up over Christmas. The priority now is to get as many people as possible vaccinated – starting with care-home workers and residents; the over-eighties and medics; and then the over-seventies and the extremely vulnerable. Not teachers, even though schools might reopen next month. The first four groups add up to about 14 million people, who are all supposed to have had their first jab by the middle of February, on Valentine’s Day, perhaps. This will depend on the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, but also on more mundane things. Are there enough glass phials? Enough volunteers for the job? Will GPs do as the government says, or rebel and give second vaccinations to their patients, as some are threatening?
It seems right that someone else should have my second vaccination, but I’m worried that there won’t be any left of the kind I’ve had, because they’ve run out or got in a muddle. And though we’ve been told that a single injection will protect us for a while, we don’t know whether we will have to continue to follow the rules. Perhaps after this lockdown we’ll be the most liberated people in the country. It seems more likely we’ll be instructed to stay at home and only venture out to see the doctor (who, by the way, has sent messages begging us all to avoid his surgery).
I was disappointed last year to realise that far from cheering people up, healthy survivors like me were regarded as careless carriers. But we are certainly not to be pitied. Having got through it, I feel ridiculously lucky. I enjoyed those sunny gaps in the late summer when we were let out after the first lockdown and dared to sit in our friends’ gardens, to swim and walk and eat in restaurants. I’ve lived in the same area of London for more than sixty years, but until now have had no reason to search out its secret parks and squares or marvel at its stretches of river and the newly built pathways that run along them. Swimming was barred during the first lockdown and is barred again. I hoped to swank a bit about the 44 lengths I was going to swim on my 88th birthday in December (one for every other year). I was thwarted. But those swims in August and September in an almost empty pool were wonderful in a way they’d never been in ordinary times.
Everyone over a certain age worries about developing cancer, about looming dementia, about falling down and being unable to get up, about knees and teeth and ears and eyes. But the worry of the last year has been different. We worry about other people and we are a worry to them. None of it is really our fault, yet we each bear a responsibility for not spreading the virus, which may visit us lightly and then move on to cause someone else’s catastrophe. The thought of infecting someone else is worse than the prospect of being infected oneself. I think of the virus, with its spikes like a sea urchin, brilliantly coloured. Does it really look like that under a microscope? Or is it an artist’s fantasy? As it settled into my throat was it already preparing to launch itself on an exhaled breath into the pristine interior of someone else?
Government ministers haven’t been shy about apportioning blame. The British public they invoke is, it seems, both sheep-like and recalcitrant: hopelessly gullible when told about ‘world-beating’ apps and vaccines and other wildly inflated claims and schemes, while at the same time flagrantly breaking rules, taking risks, planning raves – and dreaming of a ‘buccaneering’ future freed at last from European shackles. It’s definitely our fault if the virus spreads. People are told they should stay at home even if they can’t afford to, but wondering whether it was a good idea to keep schools open for so long was cowardly of us and showed a disregard for education, and especially for exams, which are what education is about after all. The government has all these matters permanently ‘under review’. Phew. It’s been clear for weeks that the new variant in the South-East of England and the even newer one in South Africa are making a dash for it. After endless shilly-shallying we are where we were inevitably going to be – at home – and likely stuck here until March.
Four members of my family are currently recovering from the virus. Another granddaughter tells me that almost everyone she knows in London is infected. The numbers who test positive, who are hospitalised, who die, increase daily. We’re shown graphs to prove it. We should all be pleased there are vaccines and amazed at the speed of their development, but the boasting and one-upmanship exhibited by our prime minister is embarrassing and dangerous because it conceals things we ought to know. The only ‘world-beating’ element in our lives is the virus, and we’d benefit from a discourse that came clean about it.