14 February: extreme shivers, extreme sweats
I’m lying in bed, shivering like crazy. My partner, Diane, is asleep, and I burrow deep into her back. I’m sweating like crazy, too. I’m desperate for the loo, and I run there in my shivery sweats and sweaty shivers. It’s only five minutes since I last went. When I sleep, the same obsessive moment plays again and again. It’s to do with numbers. I need to get past number nine, but I can’t. The dream lasts for hours. Finally, I force myself awake. Ten minutes have passed.
I felt like this once before, when I had encephalitis as a kid. That lasted more than two years, but it’s one particular night I’m thinking of – the sweats and shivers, and the fear that I’m not going to make it through till morning. After that, I used to check my pulse every time I woke up to see if I was alive.
Last night Diane took me to the emergency GP. The GP was lovely, caring, cautious. But too cautious. Diane told her I’d gone a bit loopy. “No, I haven’t,” I said. “Only in my sleep. I’m perfectly sane and lucid in the day.” The doctor asked me what day it was, how many fingers she was holding up. Thursday, four fingers. She said to Diane that I may have sepsis. Perhaps I ought to go to hospital, even if only as a precaution. Sepsis can kill, she said. Sepsis my arse, I said to Diane on the way home. I’ve got a urine infection and I just want to go back to bed.
I’m still shivering and sweating when Diane wakes up. She says we’re going to the hospital. No, I say, I just want to sweat it out. I want to wrap the duvet around me and turn into a Simon burrito.
“We’re going to A&E,” Diane says.
I tell her I don’t want to go.
“We’re going,” she says.
“You’re so unyielding!” I shout. Diane and I rarely argue. She looks upset. I don’t know where the word unyielding comes from; I’ve certainly never said it to Diane before.
A&E is packed. Valentine’s Day, but nothing romantic about it. I am expecting to wait for hours, but as soon as I see the triage nurse, they put me on a bed in a cubicle. Within minutes, they’ve inserted a canula. They test my blood pressure, my oxygen level, temperature. None of it is quite normal, but my temperature is the biggest concern – over 39C. Ever since the misdiagnosis of my encephalitis (my doctor, who just happened to be my dad’s best friend, told me I was a malingerer, and suggested that Mum had Munchausen syndrome by proxy), I have been terrified of being called a hypochondriac and done my best to stay away from hospital.
Three days of IV antibiotics get rid of my urinary infection and my temperature. The only thing is, I’ve started to cough
“We’re treating it as sepsis,” the doctor says, more to Diane than me. “If it’s not sepsis, he’s on the road to sepsis. We’re going to put him on IV antibiotics. It’s the Domestos treatment – kills all bugs.” I smile. It sounds good. And, best of all, I’m being believed.
This small ward (six beds) is where people come when they’re admitted straight from A&E. It isn’t full. Ilias is in agony with sickle cell anaemia; he’s on morphine to ease the pain, but it makes him horribly itchy. The man next to me is out for the count: heavy, middle-aged, he just collapsed the other day and was rushed in. Barry, the fella closest to the window, is having tests. He’s had an unlucky couple of years during which he’s been in and out of hospital – a terrible car crash, broken back, urinary infections, and now goodness knows what. There is a spoilt young lad who plays his films and music at top volume.
The IV paracetamol brings my temperature right down. Then it whizzes back, to almost 40C. I sit on the edge of my bed hugging my coat. The number game starts again; I still can’t get past nine. They put me back on the IV paracetamol. Again, it does the trick.
It’s early evening and Diane and my younger daughter, Maya, have to leave. This is my first night in hospital since I was 11, and I’m weepy. I’ve got my laptop and headphones, and I’m playing the same song on a loop: the medley from the Beatles’ Abbey Road – Golden Slumbers, Carry That Weight and The End. I feel as if I’m grieving, but I don’t know what for.
Saturday, I’m feeling stronger. There’s a camaraderie on the ward. The nurses are beyond wonderful – endlessly patient with difficult patients, physically strong, kind. Likewise the ancillary staff who keep the place virtually spotless. Sure, there’s a cockroach in the loo, but it’s more pet than threat.
I am given three lots of IV antibiotics a day for three days. The nurses wake me gently in the night to test my blood pressure and oxygen levels. I am sent for a chest X-ray. Within a couple of days, I’m feeling human. My appetite is back. Even the food is good: lamb dhansak and chickpeas, jerk chicken with rice and peas, fish and chips with mushy peas.
Everybody is talking about the terrible virus that appears to be decimating China. Three weeks ago, a whole city, Wuhan, was placed under quarantine. Unbelievable. Two weeks ago, the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency and named the disease Covid-19, short for “coronavirus disease 2019”. Almost 1,400 people have died in China, and today France has announced the first Covid-19 death in Europe. Thankfully, there’s nothing here yet, though we are being advised to wash our hands regularly for 20 seconds while singing God Save The Queen.
Miraculously, three days of IV antibiotics and paracetamol get rid of my urinary tract infection and my temperature. The only thing is, I’ve started to cough, badly. I’ve been susceptible to chest infections since my encephalitis. Back then, I was rushed to hospital with a pneumonia that almost did for me, and ended up staying there for six weeks.
My chest feels dreadful by Monday morning. The doctors so far have been lovely – all women, all good listeners. The doctor who discharges me is a young man, and not a good listener. He says he thinks I’ll be fine to go home today, if that’s OK. It feels like a rhetorical question. I don’t want to say it isn’t fine (who wants to stay in hospital, however good the food?) and I don’t want to sound aggressive. So I tell him I think I have a chest infection, and would perhaps benefit from another chest X-ray. He doesn’t seem to hear. A few minutes later I search him out and say I’m worried, because I have a history of chest infections and pneumonia. He tells me the antibiotics will take care of that.
I feel sad to say goodbye to Ilias and Barry, and sad because one infection seems to have been replaced by another. Sure, I’m no longer crazy feverish, but nor would I say I was fixed. Still, they obviously need the beds.
20 February: ‘That doesn’t sound good’
Yesterday the global death toll from Covid-19 passed 2,000. Meanwhile, my chest is getting rawer and sorer. I head to the GP where a locum really listens – to me and my chest. “That doesn’t sound good at all,” she says. “Could be pneumonia. I think you should get back to the hospital for an X-ray.”
‘We’re going to put you on a nebuliser for 20 minutes’: Simon Hattenstone, photographed by his daughter in hospital. Photograph: Maya Hattenstone
I see another young male doctor at A&E. He asks me if I get asthma attacks. Occasionally, I say, but this doesn’t feel anything like asthma.
“It’s asthma,” he says.
“I think I need an X-ray.”
“You had an X-ray last week. It was clear and we don’t want to irradiate you.” But there was no reason it shouldn’t have been clear; it didn’t feel infected at that point.
“We’re going to put you on a nebuliser for 20 minutes,” he says. Afterwards, he takes off my mask. “Any better?” he asks.
“Not really,” I say. “But it does feel like I’ve been on a mini break to the seaside.”
“OK, we’ll give you another 20 minutes.”
Dr Asthma asks if I use an inhaler. I tell him I sometimes use a blue Ventolin, but it doesn’t seem to have any effect.
“Do you inhale straight from the Ventolin or have you got an AeroChamber?”
I look blank.
“Ah well, that’s it. They’re useless without the chambers. I’m going to give you one to take home.”
I’m beginning to think he may be a salesman rather than a doctor. Then he gives me a packet of steroids, which puts my mind at rest.
Eight tiny pills, a few times a day. They make no difference, except for making me feel sick when they stick in my throat. My breathing is getting worse.
Early March: do we cancel our big party?
Diane and I have been together for over 30 years, and in January we got “civilled”; civil partnerships for mixed-sex relationships had just been introduced. We were only the fourth heterosexual couple to get one in the London borough of Haringey, and were a little bit proud of it. It was a great day – surprisingly romantic, fun, history-making (if you count fourth). Only immediate family were there, but we are planning a big party in two weeks – by far the biggest we’ve ever hosted. We’ve invited more than 200 people, and even if I’m not on top form, it’s only one evening. It will be great anyway.
Meanwhile, the WHO has just raised the global risk of spread of Covid-19 from “high” to “very high”. “This is a reality check for every government on the planet. Wake up. Get ready,” says Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies programme.
Everybody has started talking about how vulnerable old people are, and the need for social distancing. I am slightly worried about my symptoms. We don’t want to kill off our guests, after all. I phone the GP, hang on for the obligatory 20 minutes before reception passes me to a doctor. “Can I check whether I was tested for coronavirus in hospital?” I ask. They did so many tests, but I haven’t a clue what for. “No,” she says, and puts down the phone.
I promise you, you do not have coronavirus, you’re just getting better from what may have been a little chest infection
The public are being advised to phone NHS 111 if they are worried they might have coronavirus. After half an hour I get through. If you have symptoms, you go through the process again. Eventually I get through to a helpful nurse. “Yes, those sound like Covid-19 symptoms,” she says. “Would you prefer to see your GP or the emergency GP at the hospital?”
“Emergency GP at the hospital,” I say, too enthusiastically.
The hospital GP is charm personified. I tell her I’m worried I may have Covid-19.
“Have you been abroad recently, to China or Italy?”
“Have you been in contact with anybody who has had coronavirus?” How on earth do I know, I think.
She gets out her stethoscope: “A little bit of wheeziness, maybe.”
She asks me to blow into a peak flow meter. I take a mighty breath and reach 450.
“Wonderful! 500!” she says. “Absolutely nothing to worry about.”
I ask if I can try again because I normally do better on a second go. It’s 350. And the third time. She ignores those readings. “500. Wonderful.”
“Do you think it’s safe to have our party? I’ve heard about this social distancing.”
“Absolutely safe. I promise you, you do not have coronavirus, you’re just getting better from what may have been a little chest infection.”
I go home relieved. When Diane returns, I tell her I definitely don’t have Covid-19: it’s game on for the party. “I didn’t know you thought you did have it,” she says.
On 3 March, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, boasts on telly about shaking hands with the Covid-19 patients he’s just met. In fact, the PM seems to be getting more insouciant by the day. On 5 March he suggests that, rather than locking down the country, “one of the theories is that perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking as many draconian measures”. Apparently, this is known as herd immunity.
10 March: the empty clinic
Nothing is shifting. I am breathless climbing the stairs. The asthma pump makes no difference. I ring the surgery and tell the doctor that I wasn’t given an X-ray at hospital. “Oh, poor love,” says Dr Niceynice. “Bless you. That’s shocking. I’m booking you in for one right this minute.”
Dr Niceynice is magnificent at phone empathy, less good at face-to-face appointments. She sends me to the smaller local hospital up the road. It’s gloriously empty. A man in a mask ushers me to a waiting area, but before I have time to sit down I’m whisked off for the X-ray. In and out.
An hour after getting home, I get a call from Dr Niceynice. “Your X-ray’s clear,” she says.
“That’s great, but…”
Too late. Dr Niceynice has put the phone down.
12 March: a pandemic
My wheezing sounds like feedback – a song My Bloody Valentine may have written in their heyday. Diane says she’s worried. Yesterday the WHO declared the outbreak a pandemic. Everybody seems to be talking about why Britain hasn’t gone into lockdown; why is everything going on as normal?
At night I can’t sleep.
“What d’you think it is?” Diane says.
“Maybe a bit of pneumonia, but I’m sure I’m getting better.”
We tell our guests we’re going ahead with the party. Great, ping back the emails, we need something to celebrate.
My sister, Sharon, and I argue for the first time ever. She doesn’t think it’s safe for Mum to come to the party and wants me to tell her not to. I say I’m happy for her not to come, but I’m not going to tell her not to. Mum, an incredibly youthful if shrunken 92-year-old, could stay alive by locking herself away and having a miserable existence, or she could take a few risks and thoroughly enjoy her final years, I say; it’s the difference between living and existing. Ugh. I can’t believe I said that. Smug git.
I phone Mum, tell her not to come, and burst out crying to Sharon.
Then Ireland announces its lockdown. We decide it’s time to cancel our party, whatever the UK government is or isn’t doing. “We’re so relieved,” our friends say. “We would have come, but it would have been so strange not being able to kiss and hug, and dancing at a distance.”
I am so relieved we cancelled our party; who wants a party hosted by a horseman of the apocalypse?
By the next day, 10 people in Britain have died and there are nearly 2,000 confirmed cases. Diane is determined to get me seen at A&E before a lockdown. When we get there, it is scarily empty. A couple of minutes later, a doctor calls me into the cubicle.
“What are your symptoms?”
“Persistent cough and breathing difficulties.”
He’s young and kindly looking, but sounds angry. “Why did you come here today?”
“I was told to come back if there was no progress. It’s got worse.”
“But why today?”
Stay calm, I tell myself. I’ve been on antibiotics for three weeks and I’m still no better. If it’s a virus, I want to know if it is the virus.
He gets out his stethoscope and listens closely. I wheeze in and wheeze out.
“It doesn’t sound wheezy to me,” he says.
Jesus, they’ve moved the goalposts on sickness. Last week the GP suggested it was pneumonia; today I’m worse and the doctor’s telling me I’m fine.
“So why today?” he asks again.
“Oh bollocks to this,” I say. “I’ve not come here to be made to feel like a hypochondriac. I hate hospitals – this is the last place I want to be. Let’s go.” I get off the bed.
My outburst shocks him into politeness, and upsets me. “Look,” I say, “I know it’s not your fault, you’re just doing what you’ve been told to. I’m sorry. If we were allowed to hug, I’d give you a great big hug.” He looks terrified.
But he’s started to soften. “I can hear something,” he concedes. “Do you smoke?”
“I used to, about 14 years ago.”
“I think you’ve got COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease]. I’ll write a report for your GP.”
But until a few weeks ago my lungs were fine, I say. I ran six miles, three or four times a week.
“Yes, COPD,” he says.
Back home I discover Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, has just announced that 60% of the country – 40-odd million people – need to catch the virus for us to build up herd immunity. That’s the way we’re going to beat coronavirus, Vallance suggests, adding that we don’t want to “swamp and overwhelm NHS services”. Perhaps that’s why Dr Angry had been so upset: I was swamping the empty hospital.
Apparently, the NHS has also stopped testing for Covid-19, apart from the most serious cases in hospital. Anybody with a fever or “continuous cough” should simply stay at home.
Two days after Vallance’s announcement, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, tells us we all misunderstood; herd immunity was never part of the plan. This may have something to do with the outcry that followed – when everyone did the sums and realised the government was talking about the deaths of 500,000 British people.
14 March: the ambulance
My breathing is deteriorating. In bed at night, I sound like a cattle farm. Diane and my daughters tell me off for using the phone. I can barely get a sentence out without spluttering. I’m dizzy and my head hurts. I’ve also developed a dull, persistent ache in my leg – the kind you often get with a virus.
On Saturday, the day before our non-party, my breathing takes a turn for the worse. I am so relieved we cancelled; who wants a party hosted by a horseman of the apocalypse? Diane says she’ll phone for the ambulance. I tell her not to be daft. A few minutes later, she says gently, “Should I call the ambulance now?” Yes, I nod.
Photograph: Liz McBurney/The Guardian
The ambulance is here in five minutes. They arrive in space-age blue suits, heavy boots, masks and goggles. They’re certainly not lacking in PPE. Just the sight of them seems to improve my breathing. There are three of them – warm, likable, funny. They test my oxygen levels and take my blood pressure.
“Nothing much wrong with your breathing,” says one of them. “My breathing is worse than yours.”
I can see neighbours across the road staring at the ambulance. The three paramedics say they are going to sit in it to write their report. They return and tell me I’ve got Covid-19. I’ll be fine.
How d’you know, I wheeze. I mean, on either front.
“Well, it seems like Covid-19. Covid-19 symptoms. Try not to call us again. I know it’s tempting when you’re struggling with breathing.” The female paramedic shows me some deep breathing exercises, though I can barely shallow breathe. “As I say, try not to call again because we’re very busy,” she says to Diane. “But if his lips turn blue, ring 999.”
15 March: no party, more tests
Giving away £5,000 worth of food isn’t as simple as you’d think – not now, anyway. Eventually we find two takers: a drop-in for migrants and a homeless shelter. On Monday morning, our older daughter, Alix, delivers the food. She returns elated. Everybody was so happy to get it, she says, and suddenly it doesn’t feel that the money was wasted. The party just took a different form. She brings back a few samples – mushroom flan, teriyaki salmon, cheesecake, lots of lovely salads.
On 17 March the prime minister urges the British public to “avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues”. Stanley Johnson, his 79-year-old father, is having none of it. “Course I’ll go to the pub if I need to,” he tells Phil and Holly on This Morning. The Johnson family are good value, they’d make an entertaining reality TV show; I just wish they weren’t in politics.
By now, it’s more or less impossible to see a doctor. The GP surgery is closed down; A&E visits are a no-no. We are told to ring NHS 111 if we’re worried, but we can’t get through. Soon enough the government tells us we’re better off going to its Covid-19 website, which tells us to self-isolate. It’s a vicious circle of self-isolating helplessness.
I tweet Boris Johnson. “Dear @BorisJohnson, I am sat at home struggling to breathe, as too many people are. You’ve finally got the job you want, and within weeks you have created an NHS that tests for NOTHING & leaves us all gasping for air, helpless in the greatest crisis of our lives. Act now. TEST US.” No response.
I decide to go private, for the first time in my life, only it’s near impossible to get an appointment with a respiratory specialist; they’re too busy saving lives for the NHS. Eventually, one agrees to a phone consultation.
I tell the doctor we are Guardian journalists. He becomes animated, and tells us there is a desperate shortage of PPE
Dr Lung asks about my history, my symptoms, when the chest complaint developed. He tells me I need a lung scan, but there is a problem – the private hospital isn’t allowing respiratory patients in. Don’t worry, he says, we can see you on the NHS – get the tests done, the scan, the works. I’m relieved, but it also makes me feel even worse. So this is how private medicine works in a pandemic: I’m using a private referral to queue-jump, and not even paying for it. Morally queasy doesn’t begin to cover it, but I am desperate. “Go to the hospital and my colleague will see you,” he says.
There’s something postapocalyptic about the hospital. Deadly silent. Security on the front door. They block our way in: why are we here? “I’ve got a persistent cough. Breathing problems. I’ve been sent here by Dr Lung.”
“OK, follow me.” The man leads us to a side entrance usually reserved for ambulance arrivals. There is one other person here – a chatty woman with asthma who takes off her mask to eat her KFC when the staff aren’t looking. There is a different kind of intensity to the hospital today; the bonhomie of my last visit has gone. Then, it felt the hospital was just preparing; now, it’s the real thing.
A red-haired doctor examines me. Halfway through, he apologises and says he has to rush to a meeting. Then he returns, listens to my chest, asks what I do. I tell him Diane and I are Guardian journalists. He becomes animated, and tells us there is a desperate shortage of PPE. Meanwhile, he says, they are short-staffed because so many people have had to take time off with symptoms, because they can’t be tested.
The only people who do seem to be getting tested are celebrities, footballers and politicians. Tell me about it, he says. I say that I want a test because, if it’s not coronavirus, then I can start looking for other conditions – hopefully treatable ones. He says he’s happy to admit me, but if he were me he’d steer well clear. “If you don’t have Covid-19 now, you probably will by the time you leave.” I decide to go home without the test. They do the regular tests instead – blood oxygen, blood pressure, then one swab up a nostril and another in my mouth – and book me in for a lung scan in a few days. The doctor tells me he thinks I’ve made the right decision and pats me on the arm affectionately.
“Oi,” I say: I thought we weren’t supposed to be touching. He smiles. I hope he’s going to be OK.
20 March: a new perspective
It’s so quiet and peaceful in the night, give or take my wheezing. Everything starts to make sense. Of course it’s terrible that all these people are dying, but the world is renewing itself. This always happens at some point, when things get out of control. Today the sky was a cloudless blue, there were hardly any cars on the road, the air felt pure and you could hear the birds making whoopee. The dawn chorus makes the silence even more profound. If this is the planet renewing itself, then we’ve all got to do our bit.
The world is beginning to feel unrecognisable. On 20 March the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announces that a rightwing Brexiteering government will pay 80% of a salary up to £2,500 a month for those not working during the coronavirus crisis, if their companies agree to keep them on. Bankers are an irrelevance now. The key workers are the same doctors Jeremy Hunt was so critical of when he was health secretary; the same nurses for whom the Tories gleefully blocked a pay rise; the same supermarket workers whom the government contemptuously dismissed as unskilled.
Every issue is illustrated in curves these days. There’s the curve for those who don’t know they have it; the curve for those who have a mild illness; and the curve for those who die. But what about the inbetweeny curve – for those who have been chronically ill for ages but are going to get better without ventilators and admission to the Covid-19 wards? The curve for those who happen to get a terrible chest condition while a pandemic is raging, but feel they don’t have the right to complain because others are suffering far worse? The curve for those who go on to live long, fulfilled lives. I want to be on one of those.
Photograph: Liz McBurney/The Guardian
Later, I head back to the hospital for my lung scan. The roads are clear and I walk into the empty hospital. There’s one older man in a mask waiting for a scan. A computerised voice tells me to hold my breath while the scanner closes in.
A couple of days later, I meet my urologist on the phone. I started seeing him for a urinary tract infection a few months ago, but I’ve always had my doubts about him; I suspect he’s keen to whip my prostate out before I’m ready.
“How have you been?”
“Well, actually, I had another infection that turned into sepsis and I was hospitalised.”
“Oh. Really?” says Dr Piss. “Well, perhaps it’s time for the operation.” He finds my notes and is quickly up to speed. He even has my chest X-ray. “I see you’ve got an area of pneumonia on the X-ray.”
No, I say, it was clear.
No, he says, there’s an area: not full-blown, but pneumonia.
When was it taken, I ask.
“Mid-February, in hospital,” he says. This was a couple of days before my chest got bad. It must have already been on its way.
24 March: lockdown
The government finally orders all non-essential workers to stay at home in their “primary residence”. I love the presumption that we have more than one.
My right leg ache has extended into the left now. If I’m lying in bed, it’s agony, so I get up every few minutes – walk around, make myself some hot water as a treat. Jesus, what’s become of me? All my life, I’ve drunk coffee by the gallon, finishing off the day with a 1am cuppa. But less coffee means less urinary infections means less sepsis means less weird chest infections that may or may not be Covid-19 means more life.
27 March: Boris Johnson takes it on the chin
Two days after the start of lockdown, I stand by the front door in my purple dressing gown, giving NHS workers a good whoop. It’s not good for my chest, but it’s worth it. I start to well up, though anything makes me cry these days.
A day later, it is announced that the prime minister has Covid-19. So he really is taking it on the chin, as he suggested we all do. NHS workers are becoming more vocal about the lack of testing. I tweet Johnson again, saying we need tests for all, and hoping he gets better. No reply, but I do get a surprise phone call.
“You tested negative.”
“Hold on,” I say. “I’ve not been tested.”
“Yes, you were. Last week in hospital, and it’s negative.” I ask questions, but the woman on the other end apologises, says she’s in a call centre and has no more information.
My friends are getting ill. Everybody’s friends are getting ill. “Do you think it’s the dreaded… ?” we ask each other. Most of us think it is, but we can’t say for definite. Only I have been tested – apparently. But should I believe that, when I was categorically told I hadn’t been? We also know the test gives false negatives, though there is no data as to how often.
I hear a mosquito buzzing. It’s my chest. I hear sheep baa-ing. It’s my chest. I hear a motorcycle revving up. It’s my chest
My legs are aching so much, I can hardly bear to sit down. Everybody’s sending me lists of great box sets and movies to watch, but I can’t focus. Weirdly, the one thing I can concentrate on is Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & The Light, longer than anything I’ve ever read. It may be set 500 years ago, but so much resonates as Thomas Cromwell battles his own version of coronavirus: sweating sickness.
I prop myself up in bed, pull my legs up, and try to sleep with my eyes open; I find it hard to shut my eyes while sitting up. In the silence I hear a mosquito buzzing. It’s my chest. I hear sheep baa-ing. It’s my chest. I hear a motorcycle revving up, loud and antisocial. It’s my chest. Sod this for a game of soldiers.
Dr Lung phones to say my scan is back. He says there doesn’t seem much to worry about. There is inflammation on my lungs, and secretions, but no sign of active infection. He wants me to have another lung test in three months to make sure they’ve not solidified into something nastier. I phone my cousin – a retired GP who looked after me brilliantly 47 years ago when I had encephalitis. “Inflammation – yep, that’s good. A bit of pneumonia will leave you with that. Secretions – yep, you get them after an infection. They are a positive sign – that you’re over the infection.”
6 April: precautionary measures
Boris Johnson is in hospital. We are told it is just a precautionary measure; that he’s having tests after 10 days of symptoms including a high fever. A day later he is moved into intensive care – again, a precautionary measure.
“Do you think he will die?” Diane asks.
“Nah,” I say with a certainty I don’t feel.
The number of Covid-19 deaths is rising relentlessly. My mum phones to tell me one of her oldest friends, Lydia, has died from coronavirus. Ten bus drivers have died in London alone. The first three doctors to die in the UK are all BAME Muslims. There are so many heartbreaking stories: 28-year-old pregnant nurse Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapon dies, but they manage to save her baby. Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, a 13-year-old with no previous underlying conditions, dies without his family around him.
Photograph: Liz McBurney/The Guardian
By now we’ve passed 10,000 deaths with little fanfare or shock – just a hushed acceptance and numb inevitability. We are tracking France, we’re told. But we’re not: France includes deaths in care homes in its daily figures. Pound for pound, euro for euro, death for death, we are way ahead of France.
On 12 April Johnson is released from hospital. The country breathes a collective sigh of relief – even those who say he’s never knowingly told the truth in his life. He heads to Chequers to recuperate, while the rest of us remain in our primary residences. During this time of national crisis, the government has never seemed more determined to show there is one rule for some, another for others.
It’s not all misery. Far from it. Wonderful, uplifting things are happening. The Thursday night clap for carers is getting louder by the week. Ninety-nine-year-old war veteran Tom Moore pledges to complete 100 laps of his garden in a bid to raise £1,000. So far he has raised more than £32m, clocked up his centenary and been awarded a knighthood. As we edge towards the end of April, the UK soars past 20,000 hospital deaths, and gets barely any nearer the promised 100,000 tests a day. Meanwhile the latest figures from the ONS, which incorporate Covid-19 deaths outside hospital, are horrifying: for the week to 10 April, the number of deaths is 41% higher than the official government figures.
The aches come, the aches go, the aches return. As for the wheeze, I sound like an emphysemic canary. I phone the GP. Another locum, this time not so good.
“So my chest is still bad. A lung scan shows inflammation and secretions, and I’m worried about getting another urinary infection. I’d like more antibiotics for my chest, just to see one last time if they make a difference.”
“Uhum. I’ll send the prescription to the chemist.”
Perfectly efficient, until it turns out I’ve been prescribed an antibiotic that has not been in production for years.
May: songs of recovery
The weeks pass quickly. The government magically hits its testing target at the end of April, though it soon emerges that 100,000 tests a day is very different from 100,000 people tested in a day. By mid-May new figures will reveal that there have been more than 55,000 excess deaths (the number above the five-year average) during the pandemic – the highest total in Europe. Meanwhile, the number of confirmed Covid-19 deaths will top 36,000 – the second highest in the world.
As for me, I’m just trundling on. I’m much better than I was at my worst, but I’m not fully well. Symptoms disappear and occasionally new ones emerge. For the past few weeks I’ve been dehydrated by night and rasping like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas by day. I feel embarrassed to tell people I’m not fixed yet, so I say I’m getting there.
Our daughter Maya is autistic and a brilliant researcher. For weeks she’s been nagging me to see a respiratory physiotherapist. She finds the number for one who lives nearby, rings it and puts the phone in my hand.
“He won’t come round,” I say. “Nobody does face to face these days. It’s pointless.”
Leo, the physio, says he can pop round in an hour. Everybody gets a bit uptight. Can he be for real if he’s willing to do a house visit – and in an hour?
“If he’s not wearing a mask, I don’t want him to come in the house,” Diane says. The others agree.
Leo, a likable Antipodean, arrives in full PPE with a spare mask for me. He tells me my breathing sounds awful. I want to cry with gratitude. He gives me tips – breathe through a straw as if you’re smoking, to open the airways; steam your head over a bowl of boiling water for five minutes, then huff (as if trying to steam up windows). But, most important, he clap-massages my back and chest to drain the lungs. Nothing comes up. He says that’s probably because it’s all solid, and will take ages to come up. He shows the family how to do the massage.
None of the 10-plus doctors I have seen suggested respiratory physio. Perhaps that’s the Covid-19 mindset: they either tell people to go away or treat them as if they are dying.
A letter arrives from Dr Lung about the scan. “There was a 10mm pure ground glass opacity within left upper lobe and this is non-specific appearance.” I Google it and discover a new academic paper on Covid-19. “It’s important to keep in mind that GGOs aren’t specific to Covid-19 and can be seen in so many different settings… in terms of Covid-19… GGOs on a CT scan are indicative of Covid-19-related pneumonia, or lung inflammation caused by the viral infection.”
Since Leo’s visit, I have been wearing a mask. Three days later, in the middle of a furious massage-beating by Jimmy, who lives with us and is like a son, the first bit of mucus pops into it. It is thick, gluey and green. Just one globule, but it’s a start. I show Alix the drop of mucus with pride. “Brilliant!” she says supportively. “Ugh. I feel sick.”
I send Leo a photo of what looks like a tiny alien, an ET of the lungs. He says it’s good that it’s come up, but it’s bad mucus; the lighter the better. “If the colour doesn’t lighten, you need to see your chest specialist,” he says.
Even so, I feel triumphant. I’m sitting on the front doorstep, writing, the crazy spring sun beating down, and I’m thinking of my little green alien and singing myself songs of recovery: The Only Way Is Up, Things Can Only Get Better. Songs for myself, the country, the world. I’m going to beat this fucker, whatever it is.