Covid-19 Diaries 29th April 2020

29 April 20

Posted at 4:39

Mid way through another week of lockdown the days merge into each other. There is now some weekly routine, Wednesday evenings we have a zoom meeting with some good friends and family, generally a quiz and the associated debates. On Friday evenings the 'lads' who usually meet down the pub do a zoom meet to have a few drinks together. Initially it was a beer, a chat, and an attempt at the bizarre card game that usually rounds off Friday evenings. After week one it was clear that the card game was not going to work so Friday nights have also fallen into a format of a quiz and then a kind of potted putting the world to rights conversation although having a conversation over a few drinks on zoom is more difficult and less enjoyable that the same thing in the pub. The upside of these zoom meets is actually seeing friends, many of whom especially on a Friday are just a mile or so away!! Marilyn and I try to keep the weekends as weekends which is becoming increasingly difficult as the weeks roll by but I feel it is important.

It is weird at the moment, in many ways I am really fortunate and it is that thought that I hang on to if I begin to feel down. To begin with I am not a key worker out there on what is called nowadays the 'front line', battling with the impact of the Covid-19 virus on society. Many especially in densely populated communities have lost their lives be they NHS workers, care workers or those providing public transport.

As I don't work for a living I am neither furloughed, working from home or redundant. At the same time I am not of an age or suffering from health conditions that would have required me to be quarantined for 12 weeks. Ten years ago I made the decision to give up my career and follow my passion for photography. We calculated that with a change of 'lifestyle' we could reap some pleasure from the forty plus years that we had worked rather than continue with nose to the grindstone until one health problem or another meant all that would be left was an end of life strategy. So spent four years at university studying photography and then embarked on a life of documentary photography projects, interspersed with travel and socialising. The change of lifestyle didn't prove as difficult as we had expected and although I didn't and still haven't chosen to use the term that I've retired I am now in a position that our current 'lifestyle' does now depend on my pensions.

So I suspect I am unusual in the current climate, no real health or financial worries, fit enough and with enough time on my hands to take up volunteering roles in the community and not quite old enough for the government to consider that I should be 'shielded' for mine and the NHS's good.

Having to be at home except for daily exercise, shopping and in my case volunteering duties has meant that I have, like many, tackled some of those jobs that is is usually preferable to put off. The corner of our garden pictured above was a real mess six weeks ago. It was a quagmire of mud, a dilapidated chicken run and a broken and twisted wire netting fence all hidden under a massive palm tree. Having made a new chicken run early in the lockdown some finishing touches were added last week.

The first twenty eights days of lockdown saw me spend a few minutes or more on a jig saw puzzle a friend gave me in early March. It is many years since I had the inclination or time to do a jigsaw but I ave to now admit that it offered some periods of calm and pleasure during initial lockdown


Covid-19 Diaries 24th April 2020

27 April 20

Posted at 10:38

Rana Plaza Site 3Rana Plaza Building Collapse 24th April 2013

Friday saw the seventh anniversary of a disaster. The collapse of a building in Savar, Dhaka, Bangladesh. I spent some time in Savar following the disaster for what was to be my first really meaningful documentary project. My naivety coupled with enthusiasm together contributed both to the project being a modest success and to the massive learning experience I had. A death toll of over 1100 and injuries over 2500 made this an horrific disaster.

The Covid-19 pandemic is of course a different scale of disaster in many ways. The anniversary of the grief I witnessed seven years ago does though have parallels with the grief being experienced around the world today.What I find striking about the comparison is that Savar was a different world to mine, although I experienced the grief, the pain and despair I was one of few Westerners to have that experience. At the end of the day although I knew the Western world had contributed to this disaster, and used my work to campaign for change, I also knew that I came from a part of the world where such disasters were most unlikely to happen and should there be a disaster we were better equipped to cope with it.

Fast forward to today and we are in the midst of a pandemic that we are not equipped to cope with at all. In fact many far flung countries are coping much better than western Europe and the USA. I hear that the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918/19 is the nearest in recent history of a situation similar to what we are facing at the moment. As that came at the culmination of the Great War it is really difficult to make comparisons.

The UK government has said that the current lockdown restrictions will be reviewed on May 7th, that is still two weeks ago. In our daily press briefings it is clear from the graphs that vehicle use is slowly increasing and anecdotal evidence all around us says there are some cracks appearing in what has been an exceptionally high observance of the restrictions by the public. The signs are that the lockdown is working and infections and deaths are very slowly decreasing although as yet not for a sustained period. In Italy, Spain and France some severe lockdown measures now have dates over the next few weeks when restrictions will be eased. Those three countries along with Belgium and the UK have seen high death tolls. Death tolls only surpassed by the USA (in terms of total numbers) but it is probably wrong to even consider the USA where a madman president last week enquired whether they should consider injecting disinfectant or even bleach to control the disease. There were two major milestones today, 27th April 2020, one was New Zealand announcing that the virus was now under control in that country and in effect was no longer being transmitted in the population. New Zealand, a large country with a small population was the first to close its borders to the Chinese, early to go into a severe lockdown and still today has its borders totally closed. This gives some hope to other countries with more complex challenges. The other milestone was the return to work of our prime minister Boris Johnson who has been convalescing for two weeks after spending a week in hospital with Covid-19 including three days in intensive care. He made a rousing speech this morning and was able to articulate clearly why we must continue the route we are on with regards to lockdown. His return to the helm is timely.

The next few days will give the UK a clearer picture of if we are past the first peak of the virus and maybe an indication of what our lives may look like in a week or two.

When I thought about the anniversary of the Rana Plaza last week I thought of how the people of Bangladesh would be coping during this pandemic


Covid-19 Diaries. Care Homes

22 April 20

Posted at 10:15

Chase FarmChase House

I cannot speak with any authority or professional knowledge about care homes of course but care homes have been a hot news topic in the UK for the last week or ten days so it is worth me recording that fact and in doing so share some personal experience and anecdotes. I mentioned in a previous blog that there is  a care home about half a kilometre up a track next to my house. The building that is now the care home was originally a farmhouse, Chase farm, and in fact my own house was originally a farmworkers cottage attached to the farm. The actual farmhouse was sold separate to the farm many years ago, around 1960 I believe. When I was at school in the mid sixties a friend of mine actually lived in the house although at that time I did not live in Arlesey. Fast forward about twenty years and we had purchased our house from the estate that still owned the farm and another acquaintance owned and lived in the farmhouse, now known as Chase House. I remember quite vividly a party I went to in the house, it must have been the early '80s as the guy who lived there had a CD player, none of us had seen a CD before. I remember people stubbing cigarettes out on the few CDs he possessed just to prove they were indestructible, which of course they weren't. I've no doubt some of us will need the services of care homes one day as a result of such parties!

Chase House Care HomeChase House Care Home

The private house went on to become a care home and over the years the building has been dramatically but tastefully extended to three or four times its original size. It is a privately run care home and I believe it has maintained good ratings in terms of the quality and breadth of care it provides. I know people who have had relatives live there and I know people who work there. I've not really heard anything but praise for the care provided and I have the greatest admiration and respect for those carers who work there.

As I said earlier care homes have been a hot topic in the news recently. News nowadays consists of 90% plus related to the coronavirus pandemic. It is wall to wall, it is dynamic and increasing it seeks to apportion blame. Our government is receiving criticism about the number of deaths in our care homes. Personally I feel the only area we can confidently say the government, although strictly speaking it is the previous government as we recently, just last autumn, had a general election. The previous government(s) were responsible for financial cut backs that were severe, had they not been so severe perhaps we would have been better able to respond to this pandemic. Beyond that this present government were in the process of reversing some of the austerity we have experienced. The pandemic though struck too soon for there to be any effect. I am cautious to blame the government for the desperate situation we see in our care homes for a number of reasons:

  • First of all care home residents are by nature elderly, many have underlying health problems, they live in quite crowded conditions with much communal activity. When visitors were allowed earlier in the pandemic they arrived often from fair distances away. Residents are often not located in a home close to their relatives. These factors alone make the care home environment ideal for the virus to spread. Social distancing is nigh on impossible in the average care home.
  • The private sector accounts for a large number of care homes from big corporations managing multiple homes to smaller privately run homes. These are all businesses and in many cases quite profitable. Yet it feels as though the finger of blame for any lack of preparedness points at the government as opposed to the business owners.

Today the senior medical officer Chris Witty expanded on my first point above. I have not seen figures but I strongly suspect that in years when we have bad flu epidemics and winter vomiting outbreaks, care homes see a disproportionate level of fatalities. In reality care homes see a disproportionate number of fatalities anyway. For many the period spent in a care home leads up to and includes end of life. Of course this does not belittle in any way the horrendous situation we face in our care homes at this time made even worse by the fact that care home residents die alone without their family being able to visit.The role of the family is taken up by the already overstretched and I suspect quite frightened care staff. In reality they have done this before on a smaller scale as some people are in effect abandoned with no relatives when they are in care. Never on this scale though and never under the shadow of Covid-19.

The job and the dedication of our care workers is hopefully being recognised. Gradually they are replacing celebrities and sports star as the real heroes in our society. Despite the criticism being levelled at the way the UK has responded to this pandemic I believe our care home sector has faired well against the odds. I remember reading early in this pandemic of care homes in Spain being abandoned, patients being discovered days later all having been left to die. It is a real credit to our care home staff across all sectors that they not only care for every single resident they do so with love and dignity. 

My mother in law lived in a care home for two years (not Chase House), she suffered from dementia and Lupus and had a stoma. She died in the home in 2018. I am thankful she is not there during this pandemic.

I mentioned in a previous blog about applauding with the staff from Chase House last Thursday evening. Tomorrow I will do so again with some extra vigour.


Covid-19 Diaries. Shopping

19 April 20

Posted at 2:08

Hitchin Arcade mid afternoon Friday 17th April

This shopping arcade is nearly always bustling with people. A cafe halfway down usually has tables and chairs outside with people hanging around to grab a seat. The smell of coffee, sizzling bacon and a variety of other aromas fill the air. Music and laughter, chatter and children shrieking echo around the glass arcade. racks of bargains outside each shop are browsed through by people on their way too and from the town, the car park or the supermarket. But today on a springlike Friday afternoon, usually a really busy time, the arcade is deserted, no shops are open, they have been closed for nearly four weeks. It is eery. 

I am only here as I am a volunteer looking out for vulnerable neighbours who are either elderly, in quarantine or have had symptoms of the virus. Under government guidelines I am permitted to leave my home for essential shopping or medicines. It is the need for medicine requested by an ambulance service paramedic attending a call in my village that has enabled me to travel to Hitchin, five miles from my home. I thought I would grab some photographs whilst here.

Only shops selling essential items are allowed to open although the interpretation of 'essential' differs wildly. Some shops and services are surviving by ramping up online selling. Twisted Fabric, front right in the photo above, is a small independent clothing retailer. It is the only local clothing shop I use regularly. Of course other than for feeling good there is little point in buying so many clothes currently, other than daily exercise (one outing and day, for around an hour, near your home) essential shopping trips are the only times you are allowed out of your home. Unless you are a key worker which is generally associated with NHS and care, some construction, some essential trades and transport, lorry and delivery van drivers and of course the bin men. Everyone else is either working from home, furloughed so just stuck at home, or now out of work. Oh and I forgot although schools are closed some are partially open for children of key workers, so some teachers are working. For the majority then 'going out' clothes, the ones we renew most often are not really required. Nowadays we socialise using a video conferencing app called Zoom. So there are virtual pub nights out, family get togethers, quizzes, so many quizzes, jamming sessions, club meetings, the list goes on. The common factor is nobody seems fussed about dressing up for them. Lounge pants, dressing gowns, shorts and Sloppy Joes are 'de rigueur'. Hairdressers are not allowed to be open so people are either just letting their hair grow and looking rather unkempt or family members and flatmates are turning their hand to hairdressing (cutting and colouring) which is spawning a multitude of Keith Flint lookalikes across every generation. Any way back to Twisted Fabric, I responded to some email marketing and ordered a couple of pairs of jogging bottoms, something that doesn't normally feature high in my wardrobe. The speed and politeness of the communications impressed me. The fact that the owner, Rick, personally delivered the order the following day, religiously complying with social distancing and hygiene measures. How entrepreneurs and businesses respond to the challenges of this pandemic will impact their survival both during and after. Rick has responded not by complaining but by getting on with meeting his customers needs any way he can.

The Waitrose queue

Five or six weeks ago there was a stampede to supermarkets as a panic buying pandemic preceded the virus pandemic. I never experienced it as my opinion then as now was that it was whipped up by the news media ably abetted by  keyboard warriors on social media. I can only think that is was a stressful experience. We never panic bought and have never run out of any essentials. Supermarkets responded to the panic by initially limiting, I suppose rationing, the quantity of some items your were allowed to purchase. Then with lockdown the shopping experience changed radically and we are now used to it. On many levels supermarket shopping is now a more pleasant and efficient experience than it was pre Covid-19. The only downside is that purposeless and aimless browsing around the aisles is now a thing of the past, but is that a bad thing?

Supermarkets now only let in a fixed amount of people, I guess in an averaged sized store around thirty people. Once the first batch are in entry is on a one in one out basis. Trolley's (large or small or baskets) are allocated on entry (no more fighting for one in the car park) each trolley has been sanitised after use. There are always queues to get in, customers stand two metres apart, the distance marked with tape on the ground. Personally I try to make it three metres minimum. Although the queues look endless at times, the average wait is 25 - 45 minutes. That would have sounded like a lot pre lockdown but the pace of life now is slower. People appear more considerate and content than I've ever known (will this last?) and so after around half an hour of being amused by the facial expressions of new arrivals joining the queue you finally get to the point where the attendant says with a wave of the hand "you're next big trolley or small?". Then inside the store it is civilised, everyone gives each other space, there are no queues for the fresh fish counter or the deli, you don't have to manoeuvre  through a multitude of abandoned trolleys full of shopping whilst the owners of the contents feed themselves in the supermarket cafe, the cafe is now closed down. Lastly there is no, or only a small, queue at the checkouts. So surprisingly that early wait outside is more than compensated for by time saved in a stress free in store experience.

All shops that are open have adopted some form of limiting numbers in the shop at any one time and maintaining movement in shop and queuing outside always meeting social distancing requirements. The shops must also take all steps possible to prevent their staff catching the virus. many small shops have installed glass screens over their counters. Paying cash is almost unheard of and the contactless limit has been raised from £30 to £45 per transaction without limit on the number of transactions. Local shops in villages, corner shops on estates have are seeing much more trade as people heed government advice to stay at home and to avoid public transport.

Boots Hitchin High Street Friday 17th April 2020 mid afternoon

Other than the chemist every shop in the High Street is closed. People queue outside Boots mainly for prescriptions. Chemists make prescription deliveries to homes each morning so those queueing usually have an urgent need. The queues for prescriptions are less good humoured than other shops understandably as the customers visit is no doubt stressful and they are in a hurry. In my volunteering role I have spent a lot of time in chemist queues, it really is not the nicest place to be but the pharmacists and assistants really are heroes.

We don't know when our towns will be open for business again. Whenever it is I think 'consumerism' will have changed along with I believe some reversal of the rampant globalisation that has been increasing for decades. Our sense of value will be reset. Paying more for local produce and more locally manufactured goods may become more prevalent following our recent experiences. More of that another day.



Covid-19 Diaries 17th April 2020

17 April 20

Posted at 11:33

Broadway Cinema Letchworth


It’s Friday although days are much the same as each other in this pandemic. Thursday’s have changed though. We still put the bins out on Thursday nights but we now value the bin men. Bin men were last valued in the seventies when we were hit with the three day week. Since then they are at best invisible at worst despised for causing minor traffic hold ups or once in a blue moon missing a bin. However we now thank them, leave them notes saying how wonderful they are and include them in our weekly round of applause that happens on Thursday evenings at 8pm.

It started four weeks ago when the country at 8pm came outdoors, hung out of windows and stood on balconies and everyone clapped in appreciation of our NHS workers, nurses and doctors. It was dark that first Thursday and amazing to hear clapping, whooping and saucepans being banged from people all around most of whom we could hear but not see. This has continued every Thursday and is now a thank you to all key workers. On one side of my house is a drive that leads to a care home. It was originally a gothic farmhouse so it lays half a kilometre from the road it has been extended and today is a much larger building. Last night just before 8pm many of the care workers from the home walked past my house to the road, still dressed in their personal protective equipment. They were mainly carers and a couple of nurses, they were all young and mostly female. When 8 o clock came they clapped and cheered their hearts out. They were applauding the many people who were outside their homes applauding the care workers! Saucepans were being banged, people were cheering. Standing the other side of my garden fence to the care workers I felt quite emotional. It is spring now so it was still light the applauders were all in view, the clapping lasts for 5 minutes or so, folk go back into their locked down houses and the care workers returned to care for their guests. I had a tear in my eye, six weeks ago an event like this would have been unimaginable.

Politicians and journalists have been using the word ‘unprecedented’ a lot recently and I guess it does apply to so many of our current experiences. Just about every part of life has changed over recent weeks. We’ve been told lockdown will continue for at least three more weeks. Many are questioning if and when things will return to normal. A friend of mine put his thoughts on returning to normal into words. I thoroughly agree with his sentiment and with his permission I’ve reproduced his words here (courtesy Andrew Ward).

I’ve heard the phrase “when things return to normal” a lot lately.

I suppose it is a notion that many of us are clinging to, but it has got me wondering, what is it that people actually mean by ‘normal’?

Do they mean a return to being slaves of economic growth? A return to the endless, relentless, chasing after the wind? When things get back to normal will the insatiable appetite to build over beautiful countryside return and exploitation of the environment resume? Will vital services be undervalued and starved of resources again? Will communities return to having an attitude of indifference (or worse) to those around and within them?

When things return to ‘normal,’ will there then be no further need to show respect and gratitude for our NHS? Will we still appreciate it’s staff, other emergency and essential service providers, shop staff, refuse collectors and other key workers? Will it mean we’ll no longer be generally more considerate and sensitive of others around us? Or will we return to lighting bonfires just as next door hang their washing out or create gridlock on the high street because it was ‘our right of way’ after all? Will returning to ‘normal’ mean that nobody need bother helping their neighbour(s) anymore - whether elderly, vulnerable or otherwise?

Will it mean we no longer have the time or the inclination to reflect on the brevity of life and the things that really matter both here and now and beyond? Will we no longer cherish our family and friends and generally be content just to ‘be’? Will we give up exercising together for an hour each day and treasuring the natural world just beyond our own doorstep? Will we abandon local shops and suppliers and give up being socially aware, engaged and responsible?

I'm really hoping not, as I don't want that things to return to that 'normal'




Covid-19 Diaries 1

16 April 20

Posted at 2:13


Closure Effective Midnight 23rd March 2020

We have just entered our fourth week of lockdown in the UK. Lockdown in response to a global pandemic of a coronavirus called Covid-19. Originating from cross contamination in a wet wildlife market in Wuhan China in December 2019 Over the first couple of months of 2020 the virus, about which very little, if anything, was known, spread throughout the world.

We are now living in a world that would have been beyond our wildest dreams, well wildest nightmares, when we returned home from travelling in New Zealand on 21st February 2020. The situation in China had been in the news and travel from China had been restricted whilst we were still in New Zealand. Flying home there were more people than is usual wearing masks at Singapore airport but really beyond that Covid-19 was a distant threat.

On arriving home we busied ourselves trying to adapt to the British winter and focussed our minds on projects and activity to get involved in as we waited for Spring. We socialised with friends, visited restaurants and so on. Gradually the news contained more about the virus in China.

On 14th March Marilyn and I went to the theatre in east London and then to a restaurant in Islington. It was a strange evening. By then the virus had a grip in Northern Italy. We were being told to ‘ wash our hands’ regularly and to try and avoid crowds and being too close to people. London was strange that Saturday evening, there were a few empty seats in the theatre but it had been a sell out. Restaurants and bars were very quiet, Upper Street in Islington did not look or feel like a Saturday night. After that weekend the country began to change dramatically The theatre we had been to closed. The news media, which has been disgraceful throughout this pandemic, sparked panic buying, it was soon impossible to find pasta or toilet rolls in the supermarkets. The next week was a mixture of fear, confusion and disbelief. The news was dominated by the situation in Italy, financial markets panicked, the virus was now spreading in the UK particularly in London. It was inevitable that soon we would follow some other countries and be in lockdown. It was announced on Monday 23rd March and implemented at midnight.

The previous week we had ordered a new chicken house and run for our four hens. The area of our garden where the chickens have lived for the last 15 years or more had become dominated by a massive palm tree (yes in England) it had basically thrived for all that time on chicken shit and now stood around 12 metres tall with its massive fronds providing a large area of shade over a now dilapidated chicken coop and higgledy piggledy fencing and chicken wire. So week one of lockdown, with thankfully dry weather, was spent clearing the area, felling the tree (a bitter sweet moment) and then assembling, with difficulty, the rather modern chicken coop and run. Having completed that task I turned my attention to some sub standard electrical wiring that had been cobbled together to provide power to the garage, located at the bottom of the garden. It had been a temporary quick fix about 25 years ago. Now for the first time I guess I had enough time and patience to sort it all out and get it up to today’s regulations.

So initially and I guess this is true for many, being confined to the house, allowed out just once a day for exercise, starts off as quite therapeutic. I’m definitely not a one for DIY, I usually rush, go off half cocked make a mess and never get the job done. But for a couple of weeks I amazed myself at what I managed to achieve.

That though did not take up the majority of my time. On 16th March a friend in the village started a Facebook page to offer help to people who were isolated by restrictions or the virus itself. Over seventy year olds were subject to a 12 week period of self isolation, anyone who had been in contact with someone who was thought to have the virus had to quarantine. All of a sudden people who were slightly vulnerable due to age, ability or health now became really vulnerable and isolated and not self sufficient.

The ‘Good Neighbour’ page launched on the 16th March had ballooned into a Good Neighbour help group consisting of a sort of steering group of eight individuals working with over 120 volunteers able to offer assistance to every one of the 4000 houses in our village, The group had a website, telephone, email, every house in the village had received a flyer, posters were displayed throughout. Amazingly this was all completed by 20th March and was achieved with just one initial face to face meeting of four people on the 16th. Everything else was and continues to be done using Whatsapp, Facebook, email and the phone. Within another week the 120 plus members of the group had photo IDs which both helped with safeguarding for those receiving help and with explaining to police why we might be out and about, or to supermarkets why we are purchasing volumes of certain items. Needless to say I was and still are one of the steering group and even more bizarre than me doing DIY I now spend a fair amount of time helping the needy.

So now just a month after that theatre trip the pubs, clubs, restaurants and cinemas are all closed, as are schools and many shops. There are hardly any flights in or out of the country. Only essential workers travel, the message is and has been stay at home, protect the NHS and thereby save lives. By and large that direction has been respected. With 12,000 deaths in the UK to date and 132,00 worldwide the impact of Covid-19 is becoming apparent.