I’m waiting at home for men in masks to knock on my front door; and wondering what I will tell the neighbours when they do.
It’s Friday of last week, and I’m caught up – in the periphery I hope – of the coronavirus crisis. This is the climax of a confusing and contradictory forty-eight hours.
‘’The advice is changing all the time, almost by the hour,’’ an exasperated and apologetic NHS worker tells me; in one of several telephone conversations with dedicated and over-worked professionals in a system that feels like it’s straining to cope.
‘’We’ve had an explosion of suspected cases,’’ says another, who calls to confirm an appointment with the team who will take a sample, send it off to the lab, and determine whether I’m well, or, heaven forbid, a Covid 19 carrier.
‘We will aim to have the result in seventy-two hours. But we’re very busy,’’ warns a third.
John Ray reporting from Hong Kong
It all began when I returned from Japan. I’d spent two weeks charting the course of coronavirus for ITV News, working primarily out of Hong Kong.
In the past, I’ve reported on Ebola, so I know the dangers of becoming an unwitting participant in such a story.
So we’d taken precautions – facemasks, hand-sanitisers, soap and water and a safe distance from interviewees – and I felt fine. The medical advice was to resume my life – with family and friends – as before. Which is what I did.
Twelve days later (that’s two days inside the accepted incubation period) I came down with some mild symptoms – a headache, a sore throat and a bit of a cough and wheeze. In normal times, nothing to trouble you.
I was soon feeling better, but the following Monday, I took off work, just in case. Tuesday, and feeling more or less back to normal, I rang NHS 111 for some advice. They told me that because 15 days had by now elapsed since my return from the danger area, I was no risk.
Wednesday morning, I returned to the office. By Wednesday lunchtime, I was speeding back home. My son had also been poorly, running a temperature. He’s exactly the age when kids are supposed to have mild fevers, but to be on the safe side, my wife rang our local surgery. Our GP in turn took advice from Public Health England. My son and I were told to self-isolate and to take a coronavirus test.
There followed a day of conflicting instructions.
‘’I wish the doctors would read the advice,’ said an NHS 111 paramedic who assured me I was not a risk. ‘’Normally we have 40 patients waiting for a call back. Today we have 400 because of this. Some have waited 24 hours. Some are seriously ill.’’
Back to our GP on the phone. Again he insisted, both my son and I should stay home and await a test.
Last Friday afternoon, my wife got a text from a neighbour. ‘’Do you know your house has been cordoned off?”
It turns out you can’t be discreet when you’re tracking coronavirus.
Standing on the step, a man and women in face-masks, disposable aprons and shoe coverings. In they come to take their swabs. A long cotton bud to the back of the throat. My son cries but it’s all over in a few moments.
Then the long wait begins. And idle time breeds anxiety, try as you might not to worry.
For a start, it’s hard to isolate yourself and toddler in a small house from three other members of the family.
I reason; the chances are that if I have it; they’ll all have it too. We take our older children out of school. It’s not the official advice, but the headteacher is sympathetic and we think thankful.
The supermarket delivers groceries; we won’t starve. But I wonder how people who don’t get sick pay might meet their bills when they’re forced to stay away from work.
And I mostly worry what will happen if the worst is confirmed; what if I have inadvertently infected my family? And my friends. How many awkward conversations might lie ahead? How many names will I have to pass the team chasing contacts? Dozens, or more, I calculate grimly. In my head I’m compiling lists of names.
I watch the news. The number of confirmed UK cases mount. I remember the tube and train journeys I’ve taken in the past couple of weeks. By now I’m trying to suppress an imagination that sees me as a so-called super-speader.
Yesterday afternoon, and my phone rings again. The man from the hospital introduces himself. I hold my breath.
‘’I’m pleased to say the results for you and your son are negative.’’ I want to reach down the line and shake his hand. Instead I thank him and everyone I’ve dealt with from the NHS. I don’t envy them their task. And it’s only getting started.
Then I step outside for the first time in five days. London’s chilly air has never smelt so good.