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When the Political Becomes Personal: A Domestic Row Over COVID-19

Christina Patterson on how the contradictory and unreliable health advice from the UK Government over the Coronavirus crisis is causing tensions at home.

When the Political Becomes Personal
A Domestic Row

Christina Patterson on how the contradictory and unreliable health advice from the Government over the Coronavirus crisis is causing tensions at home.

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I had a row with my bloke. It wasn’t one of the standard lockdown rows. Who left the tissue in the washing and has to pick off all the flecks? Whose turn is it for a 100 merry ways with mince? Will there be a vaccine in the next 18 months? Oh no, not that.

“I’ve had an idea,” said my partner. 

We were standing on opposite sides of the room. I’d started feeling a bit queasy. I was pretty sure it wasn’t just the mince. I Googled nausea and COVID-19 and it is, it turns out, one of the symptoms. It’s not one of the main ones and it doesn’t seem to be all that common, and there are masses of others, none of which I have. But it is listed as a symptom. Of a disease that can kill. And my partner, as an older male, is at much higher risk than me. 

So we launched the protocols, which seem to mean that we can’t go anywhere near each other until seven days after my last symptom – if you believe the NHS guidance – or 14 days if you believe the doctors who say that’s wrong. That could mean a three-week separation, for what may be dodgy mince. Without a test, who knows?

But, while we were debating this, my partner announced that he had a new solution to the crisis. There should, he said, be a questionnaire, with built-in algorithms to tell you your risk. That, he said, would give everyone a clearer idea of what should happen after lockdown – which, of course, has been our main topic of conversation for the past four weeks.

“Right”, I said. I’m never very polite when I’m not feeling well. “So, let me get this clear. You want everyone to know their risk. Well, to be honest, I think they probably already do. People over 70, for example, or over 60 if you believe the WHO. People who are overweight, which is about two-thirds of the British population. People with ‘underlying health conditions’, which is about 20 million people. Are we at 67 million yet? If not, we must be well on the way”.

“So,” I said, “say two-thirds of the adult population is ‘at risk’, after lockdown, do they get fired from their jobs or do they get paid sick leave by their employers? Or do they get furloughed until there’s a vaccine or until they’re due to retire? And do freelancers ‘at risk’ get dropped in favour of young, healthy freelancers who aren’t going to cause as many headaches?

“Do people ‘at risk” get asked to stay at home, or told to stay at home? Do the police check the date on your passport if they see you in the street or knock on your door to check that you’re at home? Do you get prosecuted if you dye your hair and knock a couple of years off? Is it like internet dating, or is it like tax fraud?

“Are you allowed to take a risk with your own life or is it not just a risk but a crime? Are you allowed to take a risk with your partner’s life or with the lives of the healthcare workers who will have to look after you if you ignore the risk and sneak out to a café or get on a bus? Are we trying to save lives or are we trying to save the NHS? Could we even try to save lives in the NHS or is too difficult to get the equipment?

“And, if you aren’t particularly ‘at risk’ but live with someone ‘at risk’, does that mean you have to live your life as if you are also ‘at risk’? Does it mean you can’t do any work that involves leaving the house? If so, does the Government compensate you for the money you could have earned and now can’t? Would the Government prefer you to keep the economy going or to keep your relationship going? Does the Government, in fact, now want to break couples up?

“And if, for example, you have followed the Deputy Chief Medical Officer’s advice to move in with your partner for lockdown, but would quite like to go back to your own flat at some point, what do you do then? If he is more ‘at risk’ than you, do you then conduct your relationship via Skype? Or do you see each other at weekends, but only at a two-metre distance and taking care not to touch the same taps? Or do you decide to go the full Romeo and Juliet, risking all for a last, sweet kiss?”

My partner smiled patiently as he waited for the storm to subside. “I was,” he said, “just suggesting that people should have access to the most recent data so they can have a more accurate sense of the risk and make their own decisions.”

But how on earth do you make decisions like this? How do you make them when the people running your country pretended that we would ‘get COVID done’ in a matter of weeks and are now only gradually and reluctantly admitting that we won’t? How do you make decisions about your future when the people in charge think that you can’t grasp a message more nuanced than “stay at home”?

Some world leaders are treating their citizens like grown-ups. They know we know that there’s a lethal virus out there and that that virus isn’t waiting for announcements about when we can go back to the pub. Some, like Nicola Sturgeon, are publishing plans for possible ways to live with that virus, in ways that try very hard to keep people safe. They want to hear what people think of those plans, from those who voted for them. 

Not ours. We get told that our Prime Minister, the one who said he was still shaking hands with people in hospital and then caught the virus himself, is “cheerful” and “ebullient”. We are on course for the highest death rate in Europe, our health workers are dying for lack of personal protective equipment, and our Prime Minister is in “cheerful spirits”. Does he think that will cheer us up? Who knows, who cares?

I am not in cheerful spirits. I am worrying about the four people I know who have lost four parents to Coronavirus. I’m worrying about the two people I know who nearly died of it in hospital and of the damage that may have been done to their lungs. I am worried about the older people I know who have been told – not directly, but in the usual leaks to the usual newspapers – that they will have to stay inside until a vaccine can be found. And if not, for the rest of their lives? 

I’m worrying about the people I know who are struggling to pay their bills and the millions who will lose their jobs. I’m worrying about how I’m going to earn a living and whether I’ll have to choose between that and staying with the man I love.

So perhaps, at the next Downing Street briefing, the politicians could at least give us some idea of how they plan to help us answer some of these questions – and whether they might even trust us with something other than a slogan. 

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