So here is how my typical day begins. I wake up early and for a brief nanosecond all is well with the world. Then my mind turns both to the nightmares I have consistently experienced for some months now and the reality of the coronavirus pandemic. Anxiety electrifies me. It’s not just some sense of existential dread, it’s a parasitical physical entity that takes over my entire body.
My shoulders and upper arms tingle with fear, there is a ball of dread in my guts and my legs cramp. I am literally immobilised for the best part of an hour. I know I should be getting out of bed, but I am too afraid to do so. Frequently, I close my eyes in a feeble attempt at mindfulness, repeat the serenity prayer – all those years in Narcotics Anonymous have paid off despite my having no belief in God – and hope that when I open them again, I will somehow have acquired the willpower to get up.
When I have eventually found the courage to get up, I immediately do two sets of 20 press-ups. Partly as a way of staying fit, but mostly as it’s the best way I’ve found of releasing some of the terror-tension in my upper body. I repeat this at least eight times during the remainder of the day. Then breakfast, which is a piece of toast that I have to force myself to eat. At times of high anxiety, my appetite falls away. Still, I should be losing weight. Only after all this do I manage to catch up on the news and go back to my bedroom. At present I can’t face being in my study at home. I feel too alone and unsafe. Bizarrely, having gone through this routine – though I can still scarcely read more than a page of a book at a time as my concentration levels aren’t up to it – my mind settles a little and I can start work. Writing gives me, if not a momentary illusion of control, then at least a welcome distraction from my self. Until first thing the following morning …
Symptoms are defined by the NHS as either:
NHS advice is that anyone with symptoms should stay at home for at least 7 days.
If you live with other people, they should stay at home for at least 14 days, to avoid spreading the infection outside the home.
After 14 days, anyone you live with who does not have symptoms can return to their normal routine. But, if anyone in your home gets symptoms, they should stay at home for 7 days from the day their symptoms start. Even if it means they’re at home for longer than 14 days.
If you live with someone who is 70 or over, has a long-term condition, is pregnant or has a weakened immune system, try to find somewhere else for them to stay for 14 days.
If you have to stay at home together, try to keep away from each other as much as possible.
After 7 days, if you no longer have a high temperature you can return to your normal routine.
If you still have a high temperature, stay at home until your temperature returns to normal.
If you still have a cough after 7 days, but your temperature is normal, you do not need to continue staying at home. A cough can last for several weeks after the infection has gone.
Staying at home means you should:
You can use your garden, if you have one. You can also leave the house to exercise – but stay at least 2 metres away from other people.
If you have symptoms of coronavirus, use the NHS 111 coronavirus service to find out what to do.
Source: NHS England on 23 March 2020
The government’s decision to bring in a partial lockdown of the country – unbelievably some of the alt-right libertarian death cult are calling it “house arrest” – might have been an unprecedented peacetime contingency plan, but to me it felt entirely normal. The new rules are more or less the same ones I imposed on myself two weeks previously, when I started working from home and not seeing friends and family. It just feels like reality has finally caught up with my own sense of neurosis and anxiety. Which may be deeply worrying for most ordinary people, but is somehow almost reassuring for me. Almost.
Not that I’m not feeling a profound sense of loss. My children, other family members and friends feel unbearably distant despite the discovery that the phone can also be used as a phone and I also miss all my Guardian friends – they are more than colleagues – with whom I have shared an office in Westminster for more than six years. I’d also like to update you on one battle. Last week I wrote that I was at least looking forward to spending some of the refunds I would be getting on opera tickets already booked – the companies made a huge error in asking whether you wanted your money back or would donate the total ticket price as a gift; I would happily have donated 20% but there wasn’t that option – and that my wife was insistent it be put towards mending things around the house that had been broken for years. Well, tough. I went out and bought a pot instead. At times like these, things of beauty win hands down.
I should be pleased that I am not one of the 1.5 million people who have been advised by the government to self-isolate due to underlying health conditions. But my paranoia levels are now so high, I am worried that I may have been left off the list by accident and that the NHS has forgotten that I once had pneumonia when I was 16 and that I nearly had to have my leg amputated after my knee replacement became infected.
It’s also crossed my mind that the government may actually want to have me killed – sketch writers are probably high on Dominic Cummings’ hit list – and have deliberately kept me misinformed. Anyway, I’m taking no chances. Nor am I entirely reassured by reports from Spain and Italy that under-60s are getting preferential treatment for ventilators. If anyone knows how to doctor a birth certificate, please get in touch. Otherwise I am coping reasonably well, sticking to the rules and cycling up and down the same half-mile hill. I prefer my exercise to be mindless and repetitive, so that suits me fine. The one member of the household to be finding the new restrictions annoying is the dog. Initially he was thrilled to have both my wife and I at home, but now he is getting fed up with being taken for extra walks on the common. He’s also taken to social distancing from us. Normally when we go to bed, he’s the first up the stairs to nab the prime spot on the duvet. Now he’s taken to sleeping at the bottom of the stairs. He needs a bit of me time. It’s come to something when I’m needier than the neediest dog in the world.
These are strange times to be a sketch writer. The only story is coronavirus – who’d have guessed Brexit could take a back seat so quickly? – and there is nothing remotely funny about the pandemic. So I’ve often agonised over what tone to take. Most readers who have got in touch seem to think I have got it about right, but there are some who feel I should be less critical and get more behind the government. My feeling is there should always be room for light relief – I’m using Shakespeare as my role model here – and that now, more than ever, journalists should be allowed to ask members of the government the tough questions. As such, my sketches have tended not to focus on the measures the prime minister has taken but on the ones he hasn’t.
I may be more health-anxious than many, but it seemed to me almost inevitable that what was happening in China back in January would be coming to Europe down the line. And yet the government did almost nothing except argue whether Big Ben should bong for Brexit, fail to deal with the floods and take 10 days off over the half-term break. Ministers may have been working flat out for the last three weeks, but if they had started a couple of months earlier we might have had a more coherent plan in place. Not to mention more coronavirus tests, ventilators and protective equipment for NHS workers. There’s also been an undeniable sense of pathos to my sketches.
Boris has always longed to see himself as the next Churchill, but his response to the coronavirus was initially one of appeasement. He has frequently misjudged the tone of his addresses to the nation and his messages have often been contradictory and confused. Unbelievably, though, his personal ratings appear to be soaring. So what do I know?
Shortly before 8 o’clock last night, my wife and I rather self-consciously opened the front door and went out into the front garden expecting almost no one else to be around. Instead, nearly all our neighbours were out too and the applause for NHS staff – not to mention the klaxon that came from the balcony of the flats opposite – was prolonged and deeply moving. It was a wonderful moment of unity and I was only sorry that our nextdoor neighbour, who is a paramedic, wasn’t also outside to hear how much he was appreciated. I’m guessing he was working.
Perhaps, we should make this kind of thing a regular Thursday night event. We need all the community we can get. With so much terrible news, I’ve started to appreciate the small things all the more. While out walking the dog, my wife pointed to some green shoots that we had passed the day before and had grown just a little more. Stuff I would ordinarily miss but am now training myself to observe. My own garden is also coming back to life: I have recently given the lawn its first mow of the year and almost all my bananas, ferns and architectural plants appear to have survived the winter, though it’s still too early to remove their fleeces. One echium bush, covered with budding blue spiral thingies (a technical term), has already grown far bigger than I expected and really needs moving, except I can’t bear to replant it in case I accidentally kill it.
But my real highlight of the coming weekend will be the clocks going forward an hour so that it won’t get dark till 7.30. It’s a yearly milestone that never fails to fill me with hope even at times of deep despair. The extra evening daylight does wonders for my soul and I look forward to celebrating with a Diet Coke out on the patio. Even if it’s raining. In the meantime, may you all stay safe and stay well.
Digested week, digested: Partial lockdown.