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A new civility, thanks to Covid

I’ve always hated officialdom.

Feared it too, on occasions. The apparatus by which government policies are executed (the word doesn’t seem inappropriate). That faceless body of (un)civil servants: pen-pushers, bean-counters, above all cheese-parers, whether at national or local level. Unyielding and unbending – yet, conversely, well able to turn on a sixpence if the rules need to be changed in response to the latest governmental wheeze.

But one positive that has emerged from the current Covid-19 crisis is that – guess what? – our administrative overlords are not so soulless after all.

Moving house, in the teeth of this thing, has been even more nightmarish than it should have been; but my dealings with the local council, over council tax, parking permits and so on, have been (almost) a pleasure.

Ditto communications with national bodies. Unfortunately, for reasons I won’t bore you with I fell through the cracks as regards business grants and the 80%-of-income scheme; and I didn’t (and don’t) want to take out a loan – from the government or anyone else. (I know myself too well!) But my efforts to find out what I was (or in most cases wasn’t) eligible for have been met with empathy – and sympathy, where appropriate.

As I write, we seem to be returning to something like normal – that, or we’re getting used to living our lives according to an altered set of rules. As far as I’m concerned, normality – real, “normal” normality – can’t come soon enough; I’ve missed it, and I want it back. But if a legacy of the pandemic is a kinder, gentler bureaucracy? Well, perhaps that’s one nugget of positivity we can take from a year which, to my mind, has been almost all slurry.

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Why going back to school is more than going back to school

Talking of normality…

The Department for Education has been getting it in the neck over the last few days for its failure to come up with a fair means of awarding grades for A-level exams that, because of Covid-19, students were unable to sit. A flawed algorithm created by exam regulator Ofqual meant that students’ grades were not just based on their teachers’ recommendations, but on the past performance (according to numerous criteria) of whichever school they attended. The system was manifestly unfair, and the government has belatedly and humiliatingly climbed down.

This government has been slow on the uptake throughout the pandemic, and has made a lot more wrong decisions than right ones. Where I think they are right, however, is in that same department’s insistence that all school-age children should return to school next month.

Because this is not just about our children’s education – vitally important though that is. I believe that one of the reasons that Covid has had such a damaging effect on the nation’s psyche is that it has disrupted what we’re used to as the rhythm of the year. Okay, we might have good years and bad years – as individuals, as families, as a country – but broadly, our 12 months follow a pattern. Sport has a major part to play in this: you may not be interested in football, or tennis, or horseracing – but I bet you know roughly when the FA Cup final is, or Wimbledon, or the Grand National.

There are other markers, too; but “back-to-school” is a biggie. It’s when, with a heavy heart, we pack away the garden furniture and the barbecue, put the roof-rack luggage box back in the attic, and get back to work. Next stop: Christmas.

Of course with the economy apparently tanking so badly many of us may not have work to go back to; I don’t know about that, though I hope that much of the panic is down to media scaremongering. Don’t get me started on that subject…

But what I DO know is that we need structure in our lives; and this year, that – more than loo roll, or pasta, or pulses – has been in seriously short supply.

On a journey of rediscovery, post-Covid

The British chapter of the Coronavirus story may be drawing to a close. Or not. But going away for a few days remains a distant dream in the UK; and venturing abroad is set to remain well nigh impossible in practical terms for the foreseeable future.

Two weeks on the Costa del Sol might sound delightful, but it rather loses its appeal when you’re faced with spending a further fortnight in quarantine on your return. Furthermore, unless and until a Covid-19 vaccine is found, or a reliable treatment developed, or we collectively shrug our shoulders and accept the threat of the Coronavirus as something we just have to live with (not inconceivable in the long term, but unlikely in the short), cheap mass overseas tourism is dead in the water. It just can’t happen, the maths doesn’t stack up. If social distancing were to be maintained, planes would have to fly a quarter full: non-viable with ticket prices at current levels, and passengers would be unlikely to swallow a fourfold increase in airfares.

The holiday forecast in Britain doesn’t look much brighter. At the time of writing, people in England are free to drive any distance to other destinations in England, such as beaches and parks, but are not allowed to stay overnight away from home (even if they intend to bed down in a second, owned, property). And we are (rightly) being discouraged from venturing too far afield in any case; beauty spots such as Cornwall and the Lake District – and Norfolk, my own county – do not need visits from potentially Covid-afflicted incomers. We have enough of our own.

Meanwhile, across the nation self-catering cottages, Airbnb properties, campsites, hotels and holiday parks will remain closed until the start of July, at the earliest.

Nonetheless, I think there are grounds for optimism.

My gut feeling is that there is already massive, and still growing, pent-up demand for UK holidays. Four drivers (in no particular order): first, we look to be having a decent summer; second, we’re desperate for a break from our own four walls; third, many people’s circumstances are straitened thanks to furlough and/or redundancy, and staycations are cheaper; and fourth, we can’t go abroad, even if we could afford to or wanted to.

Though there is still a hunger for foreign travel – and I believe it will be possible, but we might need to be more intrepid and inventive than has been the case in recent decades.

Back in the days before wide-bodied aircraft brought cheap transport to the masses, travel was seen as the preserve of the rich; aboard luxurious liners, or as part of the jet set. And that could well become the case once again. But there were ways to get around the globe on the cheap.

And still are. If you can be flexible as to time and destination, why not book passage on a cargo vessel? Most of the major global shipping lines offer paying passengers an opportunity to travel with them. As a paying passenger, you are accommodated in guest cabins and have access to most parts of the ship. This is not a cruise – there’s no nightly cabaret, no boutiques, no health spas, no deck tennis – but spending a week or two on a working ship is a fascinating experience in itself. And you’ll have plenty of room: a definite plus if (by then) you’re still pursuing a self-distancing policy. Predictably in these internet-driven days, a number of freighter travel agencies have sprung up to take the ‘hard work’ out of booking your passage. Thanks but no thanks; you will be much better served, and save a considerable amount of money, by contacting the shipping lines direct.

Meanwhile, with many airlines going to the wall (especially the low-cost no-frills carriers), those that remain will inevitably raise prices – partly to recoup losses, partly because of conditions imposed on them by Covid-19, and partly because of the simple principles of supply and demand. Your job as a traveller is to fight back.

And here’s a weapon for your armoury: I predict the re-emergence of courier flights.

Popular in the 1980s and 1990s as a way to travel the world on a budget, courier flights involved handing over your baggage allowance to, say, Federal Express or TNT (the latter has, I learn, now been taken over by the former), and therefore travelling with hand luggage only, plus a manifest of what was actually taking up your space in the cargo hold. In return for your sacrifice, you got a cheap ticket.

Courier flights died a death in the early noughties. Why? Three reasons. First, 9/11 made carriers super-wary of what they were carrying. Second, air travel became cheaper overall, to the point that there were no longer significant savings to be made. And third, many courier companies – certainly the bigger players – improved their logistics operations (in some cases using their own fleet of aircraft), so that there was no longer a requirement for couriers to be drawn from the ranks of the public.

With Covid-19 still globally rife, it’s too early to say for sure what new economic and communications matrices will establish themselves. But in these stay-at-home days record-busting numbers of letters and parcels are criss-crossing the globe (many ending up at our doors via Hermes, Parcelforce and DPD); and I’m betting demand for that will continue, post-Covid. Which is good news for logistics companies; but I think volumes will be such that, once travel restrictions are lifted, there will be renewed demand for people (on a reduced number of flights, remember) prepared to cede their cargo space in return for reduced airfares.

Conflicted by Covid

As recently as 14th/15th March, with the (now not-so-novel) Coronavirus establishing itself as “a thing” in the UK, the clouds gathering, the virus making itself felt in our daily lives, I’ll admit I felt scared. Anxious.

It wasn’t Covid-19 itself that worried me – I may get it, I may have already had it, and at just turned 58 and healthy I’m not very high-risk.

What I feared was societal breakdown. Already fractured by the shift to “online” and the agonies of Brexit, society, I reasoned, would be totally rent asunder by the weight of this latest onslaught. Cue the apocalypse. Anarchy. Survivors going feral. Shooting each other for a mouldy loaf of bread.

These are still relatively early days, but it seems I was wrong. While some news media need to take a long, hard look at themselves, much of the reporting (to date, anyway) has, to my mind, been measured, factual and non-sensationalist. (Though maybe you just need to know where to look.) And BBC Radio 6 Music has been nothing short of superb: a national radio station pulling off the neat trick of sounding like a local one, and somehow pulling a disparate nationwide listenership together with just the right mix of levity, concern, genuine warmth and great tunes.

Furthermore, my social-media feeds are full of positivity – which I did not anticipate. Ideas for how we can all help each other. Stories of how many of us – individuals, charities, businesses – already are.

I had expected people to run for the hills and pull up their drawbridges. (And to mix their metaphors, clearly.) What I hadn’t expected was a rebirth, a rejuvenation, of society, of community.

God, doesn’t it do the heart good?

But it’s not all upbeat. As I write, my brother lies seriously ill in our local general hospital, the Norfolk & Norwich (AKA the N&N), having suffered a perforated gall bladder 12 days ago.

He was taken to hospital on 15th March with severe abdominal pain, examined, and… sent home. Indigestion, that was the verdict.

The pain didn’t go away, but rather intensified. Forty-eight hours later he was properly admitted – and has since been on a course of serious antibiotics to fight the infection that the ruptured gall bladder, missed two days previously, has since caused; the latter cannot be excised until the infection has been beaten.

My brother’s wife has been able to visit. The rest of us, rightly, have been prevented from visiting because of the Coronavirus, but have been assured that he was “responding well” to the antibiotics.

That message now appears to have been stretching things a bit. The night before last he went into renal failure. Kidney function in a man of his age (68) and general state of health should be between 60% and 70%.

His was 3%.

A cannula was fitted to deliver essential fluids – and fell out. Despite repeated requests it remained unfixed throughout the night of 25th/26th March. So my brother set his phone to sound an alarm at 15-minute intervals; every quarter-hour, the whole night long, he woke himself up and forced himself to drink. It was the only way to stay hydrated, and alive. It is my belief that he is still with us only because of his own grim determination.

The latest news is that the N&N is likely to discharge him today. Not because he’s recovered, far from it; but because were he to contract Covid in his present condition it would definitely kill him; and the chances of coming into contact with it are increasing by the minute. The hospital is close to being overrun with the virus.

The National Health Service is a magnificent institution, of which we should be hugely proud; and right now NHS personnel are justly winning plaudits for their unceasing care and commitment. The NHS has its hands full dealing with Covid; we know that, and we make allowances.

But that doesn’t mean the organisation shouldn’t be called out when mistakes occur. A misdiagnosis is a misdiagnosis, and poor treatment is poor treatment.

To some extent of course, my brother is, tangentially, a Covid casualty; but in at least equal measure, he has been a victim of diagnostic ineptitude. Had his condition been correctly identified in the first place, when the N&N was not unduly busy, he would have been admitted on the Sunday, undergone surgery on the Monday, and discharged on the Tuesday: way before the virus made any real impact – in Norfolk as a county, never mind its central general hospital.

Instead of which, he faces an uncertain future. Self-isolation at home; weeks, possibly months, on antibiotics and a restricted diet; frequent visits from community healthcare professionals (when resources are already stretched); and at the end of all that, probably readmission for surgery when it’s considered safe (though gall bladders have been known to fix themselves). Self-isolation might be de rigueur for many of us at present anyway, but the rest would have been largely avoidable had the problem been correctly identified in the first place.

All of which is a bit long and rambly. I guess I’m conflicted, really. It is surely heartening to see (and be part of) the overwhelmingly positive outpouring of fellow-feeling that has overtaken the nation; and generally, our National Health Service has been, and continues to be, beyond amazing. But the NHS that is rightly winning across-the-board plaudits for the fantastic job they’re doing caring for Covid patients is the selfsame NHS whose misdiagnosis/negligence came close to killing my beloved brother. One to chew on.

Coronavirus: dry cough, fever, shortness of breath… and, as it turns out, cognitive dissonance.

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