Vulnerable prepare for weeks of self-isolation
Wash hands, cook dinner, open the windows, disinfect everything — from the door knobs to the kettle to the light switch to the bin.
Just weeks ago such an intensive after-work routine would have been unthinkable. But this is how a group of five housemates in east London, some of whom are at particular risk of illness, are adapting to life in the age of coronavirus.
“It does feel weirdly extreme,” said Fiona Regan, a 27-year-old freelance graphic designer with a serious asthma condition, “but you never know”.
The coronavirus pandemic has upended societies and financial markets around the world, and prompted unprecedented peacetime responses from governments. In an effort to slow the rapid spread of the virus in the UK, schools have closed and ministers have asked people who can to work from home and avoid going out except for essentials.
More drastic guidance was announced on Saturday: 1.5m people whom the government deems to be particularly vulnerable — the over-70s, pregnant women and those with certain underlying health conditions — are being strongly advised to self-isolate at home for at least 12 weeks from when they receive a letter from the National Health Service. Although this is not legally binding, many are taking it seriously to protect themselves and those they love.
This week, as people began experimenting with staying inside most or all of the time, social media was flooded with funny, supportive and strange videos of people’s first few days under self-imposed house arrest. But people also struggled to do basic things, like buy fruit and toilet paper, and weekly downloads of domestic abuse support app Bright Sky rose 30 per cent.
Ms Regan began working from home on Tuesday and intends to isolate for the full three months. But two of her housemates are still going to work, hence their new cleaning routine.
Ms Regan now works from her bedroom, avoiding the others where possible, and her flatmates take it in turns to shop for food.
“We’re going to play it by ear,” she said, since news updates and guidance seem to change “almost every second”. She plans to paint, draw, do online courses and spend more time talking to friends around the world. “I won’t be bored.”
Ms Regan did not think she’d fall into the government’s “vulnerable” category, since her asthma does not flare up daily — but when it does it can cause her to be hospitalised.
“Being young and fit and healthy, it was a bit bizarre,” she said. “But if I think about what an asthma attack feels like and then add a respiratory virus on top, I can’t imagine what trying to breathe would feel like.”
Not everyone has help just a few rooms away. Jeanette Hughes, 54, has Parkinson’s disease — a nervous system disorder that makes movement difficult — and is self-isolating at home in Merseyside, alone.
Her husband Anthony is working on an oil rig in the North Sea and Ms Hughes is worried about how and if he will be able to return home. Her elderly parents, whom she would normally see daily, are also self-isolating, and she is relying on neighbours and her children to drop off food at the house.
“It’s a very difficult situation,” she said. “I’m getting through the days slowly, and thank god for the internet.” Her condition means that something as simple as making a meal is difficult: in the morning, Ms Hughes has to wait for her medicine to take effect, so she stops shaking, before she can make breakfast or have a shower.
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But some have it worse than her, she added: “I feel for people who don’t have family around them.”
Sue Pollard, 58, whose husband Andy has Parkinson’s and dementia, is also feeling the strain.
Mr Pollard is “finding it hard not seeing relatives and friends, and dementia is causing all sorts of anxiety and vivid dreams”, she said. “It’s a nightmare really.” Fortunately, friends, neighbours and the local supermarket are helping deliver supplies.
Ms Pollard’s two best friends have also set up a group chat on messaging app WhatsApp to “ease some of the stresses of being confined to a small space”. This summer, the couples are considering driving somewhere with a view and eating a picnic in their car.
Being able to rely on the generosity of others is something that Elaine and Michael Yates, an elderly couple in Irchester, Northamptonshire, are also grateful for. The local chemist is delivering medical supplies, a hotel is serving drive-through lunches and neighbours are walking the couple’s dog.
“The village are brilliant, they’re all rallying round. You’ve only got to put a request on Facebook,” said Elaine, who cares for Michael. “Nobody can find any unsweetened soya milk,” she added. “We might have to water down the long life.”
The couple laid off their carer this week — out of fear she might infect them with coronavirus — and are “expecting things to get a lot worse”. They, like many others, are uncertain and anxious about what might be coming in the weeks ahead.
But Elaine said she was doing her best to keep them occupied and their spirits up. “We’ll live from day to day,” she said. “We’re all in this together.”