From David Maughan Brown in York: Vaccination

Not quite York Minster

17th January

Soothing as a gentle organ accompaniment would undoubtedly be, one does not need the sanctified Gothic surroundings of Salisbury or Lichfield Cathedrals to benefit from the efficiency of the NHS’s roll-out of its mass Covid vaccination programme.   The Park and Ride car-park alongside Tesco at Askham Bar on the outskirts of York is more than good enough for me.   I wasn’t about to allow mere aesthetics to deter me when I received a text message on Friday inviting me to book an appointment for a vaccination.

Face-mask, passport for photo-identity, and booking reference (neither of which last two was actually needed) carefully assembled, we drove out to the vaccination-centre in good time for my appointment at 3.45, and by 4.05 were on our way home again.  And the twenty-five or so minutes we spent there included a compulsory 15-minute wait on one of the serried ranks of socially distanced chairs at the exit end of the marquee to make sure there weren’t any dramatic adverse reactions:  one wasn’t allowed to leave until the release time stipulated on the vaccination card had expired.   The efficiency of the process was made possible by literally dozens of volunteers: I counted six men in bright orange overalls directing the traffic; several others had the job of meeting the cars and escorting people to the marquee; then there were the receptionists signing us in, the stewards guiding us to one of the ten vaccination booths, and two people responsible for the vaccination itself in each booth; and, finally, a group of volunteers keeping watch on those waiting to be released and checking the vaccination cards as we left.  Everyone we engaged with epitomized the ‘care’ in healthcare.

I had been wondering idly whether it would be the Pfizer or the Astra-Zeneca version of the vaccine that was being rolled out in York, not that I minded either way, but I didn’t need to ask the question.  Having been directed to one of the five booths on the right hand side of the marquee, I was asked a few routine health questions, one of which was whether I had any allergies.   When I mentioned that some 25 years ago I had experienced an episode of anaphylactic shock as a result of an allergy to an antibiotic, the vaccinator’s assistant immediately scurried off to find a supervisor who came over and ushered me into a booth on the other side of the marquee.  The answer to the question I hadn’t had the chance to ask was ‘both’.  The booth I had originally been shown to was using the Pfizer vaccine, the one on the other side was using the Astra-Zeneca one.  I was left to conclude that the Astra-Zeneca version is the less allergenic of the two.

Welcome as soothing organ music might have been as an add-on, it was the efficiency of the whole process and my gratitude to the scientists and volunteers responsible for my passport to what might with luck turn out to be a relatively normal future, that achieved the necessary soothing.  And some soothing was necessary.  When I heard about the mass vaccination centres being set up, my immediate response was to wonder whether it might conceivably be possible that our third-team government had learnt any lessons from the crashing and burning of its much vaunted world-beating Test and Trace system, now sunk (at least from the media) without trace.  So when I saw that the text message inviting me to book my appointment via an electronic booking form carried the logo of our GP practice I was reassured that there wouldn’t be the same communication problem as there still is between then centralized and community testing processes.  Wrong again.  The booking form was the Hannibal Lecter of user-unfriendly booking forms.   I’m nobody’s idea of an IT expert but I can manage any half-intelligently put-together electronic booking form. After struggling with this one for literally 90 minutes, I eventually got through to the climactic point when it told me that my GP practice, the one whose logo headed the form, isn’t taking part in the mass vaccination process.

I phoned our GP practice at 4.30 and eventually spoke to a harried receptionist at 5.30, well after she was supposed to have gone home for the weekend.  She told me that a phone queue with 11 people waiting to speak to the practice had leapt up to 77 people during the afternoon as people received the offending text message.  She offered to book me an appointment the next day but warned that it would take her ten minutes to do so, as it duly did.  She had no idea when she would get home that evening and isn’t paid for any overtime.   I couldn’t bear to ask her how many people were still in the queue waiting to speak to her. When we eventually emerge from the current crisis, as we surely will, it will be on the backs of the innumerable receptionists, volunteers, doctors, nurses, scientists and other key workers who have managed to carry those of us who are left through to the other side, in spite of the venal incompetence of those who are supposed to be in charge.

From Brenda in Hove: It’s Part of my curriculum

the Toulouse-blue crepe van

11 July. I have been feeling a bit poorly for a few weeks and haven’t been out much. Truth be told, life felt somewhat joyless. Covid and attendant restrictions are getting to me. Today I felt a bit better and went to the park to find out if my legs still worked (they did). I trod my usual paths and looked out for anything different since I was last there. Same old thing: lots of men with very shaggy beards; lots of men who haven’t heard of clippers; lots of women with weird hairdos who clearly haven’t made it onto the appointment lists; boisterous teenagers being the only people who at least don’t seem as subdued as the rest of us but behaving rather recklessly nonetheless. No joy there.

I noticed that there are now well trodden, clearly discernible paths alongside the main paved paths around the park – made by people like me trying to keep an acceptable distance from the people on the paths – lots of them. I read somewhere (The Observer, 14 June) that these are called “desire paths” (can you believe it?) – paths trodden by people who are usually intent on a shortcuts but are now intent on keeping to social distancing measures. It struck me how furtive and suspicious we all seem now – avoiding each other as if our lives depended on it (and they may). If an alien landed from another planet, it would think we were a very unsociable species. And that is before we don our masks. No joy there either.

The children’s play area was open. Now there is a joyful thing! I love children and I love watching children play. They have been kept away from the playground for so many months that they were relishing being back. Children walking with their parents on the path and spotting the playground just took off, faster than they have ever run before. Amusing. And joyful.

And then I caught sight of a dear little Toulouse-blue van advertising French crepes (gluten free, by some miracle). I felt genuine joy! I love crepes and haven’t had a single one since I went on a gluten free (dreary) diet. The brand name was “Oui!” I leapt to it – even though I had to go back to the apartment for my card. It was delicious. It reminded me of what I already knew: joy can be found in small things. It doesn’t do to be too ambitious.

I read a book some time ago called The Book of Joy by Douglas Abrams in conversation with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. There was much to be learnt from it. One story stuck with me and comes to mind as I try to come to terms with a life after Covid (challenged as I am by my advanced age). The author’s father had fallen down some stairs and suffered a traumatic brain injury – with no guarantees that he would ever return to his former self. As it happens, he did, eventually. When one of his sons said that he was sorry he had had this terrible experience, the father replied, “Oh no, not at all. It’s all part of my curriculum.” (page 157)    

I think it is very much like this with Covid. We have to learn to find joy in new ways. It’s part of our curricula.     

From Brenda in Hove: Another Thing for the Chop!

4 July

I saw a poster recently to the effect that the rush on toilet paper a few months ago wasn’t a patch on 25 million women trying to get a haircut this week when hairdressers opened. I wasn’t desperate but I was on the hairdresser’s list and he emailed me some time ago asking if I wanted an appointment – in the manner of bestowing a favour. I did.

What a performance! Before you cross the threshold your temperature is taken – after being asked to lift your hair from your forehead (fair enough). Through his spectacles, the visor and over the mask the man is not sure what he is seeing. I sympathize. I assure him I do not have a temperature. He takes it again to be sure (so far, so good). Nobody is allowed in without a face mask and at the door I am asked to put on surgical gloves and a plastic gown. All these had arrived from China only the day before (I would have thought the UK could extend itself to manufacturing such simple gear).

The staff are wearing face masks as well as plastic visors and surgical gloves. If I didn’t already know them, I would never be in a position to recognize them again. I have been going to the same place for years and get on very well with the owners. We usually have spirited conversations about politics – although we vote very differently. This time I don’t have on my hearing aids (they quarrel with my mask) and he is incapacitated by all the gear he has on. It is uncomfortable for him and he is still getting used to the whole thing. Very little conversation. He did manage to say he didn’t think much of Joe Biden. What did I think? “He is not Donald Trump,” I say. “He will do.” “Oh!” he said. “I hadn’t thought of it like that.” My heart sinks (for  reasons unrelated to him)  – and so does the conversation. Too difficult through all the masks and whatnot. It is a pity. I used to enjoy our conversations.

The whole salon has had to be reconfigured to accommodate the distancing measures. Much carpentry, electricals, plumbing and paint work. Expensive – and done before the government changed its mind about the distance to be observed (from two metres down to one metre). Really.

Colour applied, hair washed (holding face mask over my mouth and nose), much desired cut done. He makes a remark about the cuts my husband has done. “He won’t get a job here.”  “He neither trained for it, applied for it or wants it,” I say (the cut was rather good in the circumstances I thought). He was amused. Before I paid, my contact details had to be recorded for tracing purposes (yeh, right!).

I  realise that face masks make human interaction minimal – only doing what need be to get the transaction done. Quite apart from not being able to recognise each, no smiles, no frowns, no facial expression at all registered. It completely changes the small pleasures that social interactions provide in the normal course of events. The hairdressing salon was one of those places where people chatted – with the person cutting their hair, with the people in other chairs, people waiting, people providing tea and magazines (the latter two a thing of the past). It wasn’t high society but it was pleasant. That is no more. Sad.

My hair can go grey again, my husband can cut it in future and I can get used to both very easily. One more thing I really don’t need.  

From Steph in London: A World Beating system … and absolute incompetence

June 19

Hurrah, with a world beating system the NHS and the country will be saved…

The new track and trace scheme is now up and running.  The management of it has bypassed local public health teams and it’s controlled centrally. So- from a very reliable source …. somebody gives information after testing  positive for Covid on May 31.  The team starts phoning round but can’t get any  joy so on June 10 contacts the local PHE team to take over the contact tracing ….only 10 days wasted and heaven knows how any more infections..

Fortunately, we are on top of the track and trace(!)  and are going to give Google/ Apple a try at the phone app-creating world beating systems temporarily shelved! We’ve only wasted about 3 months and millions but the boys have all the answers.

And now we move to education, where the leadership has been spectacular. Thank goodness we have Heads and staff working their socks off trying to work out how to get children back into schools realistically..

My daughter in law is a data manager for a 1600 plus secondary school. Normally at this time of year she will have done the timetable for September and head of departments will have ironed out any issues (like double A level Physics on a Friday afternoon!)

This year she has created 2 timetables – a normal two week timetable with all subjects getting their allocated time in the right rooms with the right staff and a shadow timetable that can be slotted in for all pupils…..for simplicity and to ensure all pupils get time in school, they have decided to offer Maths, English and science only on a part time basis if necessary …..It’s the Options that create problems for bubbles and social distancing.

Given the school leaving age is now 18 it may be time for the curriculum police to think about a broader offering for all students for longer.  No Options or GCSE exams at 16, (which no longer makes sense as everyone stays in education beyond that.. the end of year 11 is not a definitive time anymore) Perhaps International Baccalaureate type education?

From John in Brighton: Shielding – To be or not to be?

20 June

How do you link “shielding”, a packet of biscuits and a sharp rebuke? The obvious answer is too much comfort eating but you’d be wrong. My daughter spotted gluten-free biscuits on the shopping list I gave her last week and leaving no stone unturned a third degree ensued on why (I’m not gluten-intolerant), who was coming over, indoors or out, how many people…? Definitely won’t be in the house I reassured her but had to hedge a bit that there might be two people. Cue for a reprimand and brief homily on safest option being total abstinence of any social contact. Floundering on the ropes I point out that since 5 June shielders can spend time outside with someone from another household. A bit of Socratic irony from my son “Do you trust everything the government says?” “Well no actually” and that’s as good as a knockout punch. Case won in favour of the prosecution.
Strictly speaking they are right and what is clear is that their sentiments are entirely well-meaning and out of concern for my health and welfare. But equally after nearly three months the shielding does take its toll and that’s despite my going out on my bike (with social distancing) to maintain my sanity. I’m blessed with a garden but even so the glorious weather exacerbates the frustration. And to rub a bit of salt into the wounds we see progressive relaxation of lockdown for swathes of people up and down the land. But perhaps that reinforces the importance of ongoing shielding – a second wave is always potentially waiting to pounce like an angry cat.
Some shielders and indeed some support groups talk of an increasing two-tier society and the shielders’ desire to return to some sort of normal life. There is speculation this week that imminent changes could include the abolition of the need for shielders to isolate at home from the end of July and based entirely on clinical evidence.. But let’s remind ourselves we are the “extremely vulnerable” (sic). I’m a pensioner with additional health risks and an article in The Guardian a month ago starkly demonstrated how age was a key risk factor. The over-65’s are 34 times more likely to die from Covid than those of working age and 88% of the deaths were in the over-65s. 
So I acknowledge my offspring’s concern and that extreme vigilance is still the only guarantee of safety. The down-tick of cases and deaths should not induce any feelings of security and the case is made for ongoing shielding – short term pain for long term gain one hopes. I haven’t claimed the food parcels nor the prioritisation at supermarkets – it’s much more fundamental than the “perks”, it’s trying to minimise risk and maximise survival. Prolonged isolation can impact mood and mental health and if I were following Socrates I might be seeking out the hemlock by now. Instead I’ll turn to the meditations of Marcus (Aurelius not Rashford although the latter is clearly wiser and more proactive than BJ) and I think his advice would be similar to the offspring. Better to be the also-rans in a two tier society and it’s the utmost caution for the foreseeable future – “Carry on Shielding” is the one they never made so where’s Kenneth Williams when you need him?