Lockdown Diaries

I started writing these diaries on LinkedIn as an antidote to all the self-obsessed selling that was happening on that platform. Look at me! Look at how my company can fix your Coronavirus issues! It was naked marketing done by rank amateurs. After a few raised eyebrows, my counter-pieces got some great feedback which encouraged me to continue to the end. I wrote daily at first, and sometimes more often, but it gradually fades out towards June. Rather like lockdown itself…

Early March

At the beginning of March 2020 it was not clear that Britain would go into lockdown, as some other countries had, or what sort of lockdown it might be. I wrote two pieces before lockdown that I reproduce below in edited form.

The calm didn’t last long did it? I am here to restore calm. In Germany, cases are through the roof but the death rate is very low. Why? Simple: they are testing like mad squirrels. The UK most likely has the same (or more) cases but we only test hospital patients.

The UK has ordered samples of an antibody test. [These didn’t work.] Italy have stopped ventilating the over 60s, we learn. This is okay. My inside NHS source tells me that in fact, a ventilator is not a panacea, it is just something to keep the troops busy. If you need a ventilator for any condition at all, you are in bad shape. Ventilators do not ‘cure’ COVID-19. Just as with any other disease, if your number’s up…

The malaria drugs give hope to hospital patients, but what about the side effects? [Didn’t work.]

In business, more measures are coming at 5pm GMT. Supermarkets have embarrassed themselves, especially those with online delivery. Ocado, stepping out in the spotlight, has stumbled and might not survive. Middle England will starve.

News from London. The next 48 hours will determine whether Boris is seen like Eden or Thatcher by historians. You can see it under his eyes. When and how he ‘shuts’ London will ripple through the rest of the UK. The ECB stands ready to bail out Greece first, then Italy. You heard it here first: Greece is suffering a quiet bonds crisis. The ECB trillion or so bond-buy scheme seems to have settled sterling, for now at least. Tomorrow is your last chance to trade US stocks for a while. Before Lehmans, do you remember Barings?

There is a silver lining: Twitter is now as it was in 2008, a much more supportive platform. [Didn’t last.]

Day 1: March 23

Day 1 / 84. First point: 84 is 12*7, and this is the first official day of business not as usual. Schools closed for the first time today, as did most shops. Already, senior figures are whispering that 84 days might not be sufficient. They couldn’t deliver Brexit in 84 weeks so this is not a surprise.

Markets have rallied after the Fed rolled out the big guns. Otherwise it would have made last week look like a walk in the park. Another thing that is not possible this week.

Mood on the street: mainly stoical with patches of hysteria moving in from the west as the day rolls on.

Day 2

Yesterday’s lockdown was just a final bit of fun. Now we’re into super lockdown in which we really jolly well ought to stay in for three weeks. You can exercise, shop for essential items and go to work. That was basically my life anyway. Luckily nobody asks us to partake in the charade of self-printed permission papers. Nobody counting whether we do one or two jogs a day. The fine is an eye watering £30 which will deter absolutely everyone.

The markets rally again, though slow to get the message. For now, no catastrophe. But the Euro is on life support. BoE cancelled its stress test as the real world has already exceeded the most apocalyptic scenario. Let’s hope our banks are better than the last time they collapsed.

The Olympics is off. Nobody tell Japan. They’ll get the message one day.

Forecast: Someone told me long ago there’s a calm before the storm. I know, it’s been coming for some time. When it’s over, so they say, it will rain a sunny day. I know, shining down like water. [Yes, you’ve got it. John Cameron Fogerty’s Have You Ever Seen The Rain?]

Day 3

The most striking news today is a new Oxford study which indicates that the virus has been in the UK since early January and may have infected as many as half the population without their knowledge. Although startling in its implications, this conclusion raises many questions. The team will be testing this theory soon and we cross our fingers with them. [This ‘dark matter’ theory is gaining ground.]

Goldmans have officially advised a Buy for gold. They are anticipating gold to continue its rise this year, possibly grazing its all-time highs. Equities are largely recovering but only due to being propped up. Most UK companies seem to be scrapping dividends, as well as delaying results as advised by the FCA.

Forecast: localised but large-scale shocks are dissipating. Aftershocks are possible, while remembering this is not a sprint.

Day 4

Day 84 is coming sooner than we hoped. Over the last few days I have tried to present an alternative view of the stories ignored by the mainstream media. I interrupt this service for a potentially game-changing revelation. There is a team in Oxford who have a completely different disease model to the one at Imperial that has captured our minds for the last week or so. They are beginning large scale tests this week and should have some results in the next 7 days.

Their theory, which I post here only because it reflects my personal situation and some other anecdotal stories from people around the south east, and near Europe, is that COVID-19 has been in the UK since the new year and most likely longer. If proven, it could mean that ‘half’ of the UK have already had the disease without being aware of it.

The headline from this is that restrictions could be lifted much sooner than the fairly depressing “12 weeks or so” that we see a lot on the rolling news channels. I’m trying not to get too excited, but the implications include a final UK death toll for 2020 of less than 5,000. A hospitalisation figure of fewer than 1 in 1,000 cases. [These figures were woefully inaccurate.]

It’s is a little different here in the UK. As the kids get used to not being at school, they wonder what it was for. And even the British government has learned how to run a press conference on Skype. But friends, I have some very dark news.

Those of you I know from outside of work know that I enjoy nothing more than some Cold War debate. Never before in the tide of men and all that guff. I bring news of 3 real and present issues, 2 of which have come from my sources in Europe.

The first is what seems to amount to a coup in Kosovo. That’s in Yugo – in Bosnia. I mean it’s in Kosovo. Look it up. This is not good. The second thing is that Russia has sent seven war ships up the Channel. The last thing the Royal Navy needed as it pitches in, is that. And third, the US has charged a foreign President with drugs crimes. Don’t think about Iran for now. It’s not good. What we learn from history is that when the economy tanks, the tanks roll.

Forecast: They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They don’t mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had, and add some extra, just for you. Bu they were fucked up in their turn. Get out as early as you can, and don’t have any kids yourself. [Larkin. Who else? On LinkedIn, I wrote ‘messed’ instead!]

Day 5

More reflective today on the day when half the British cabinet caught “it”, the Big C. Various rumours abound about why Dominic Cummings was running up and down Downing Street like a jewel thief. [This was the day it later emerged he was running home to attend to his wife, who had Coronavirus. He then returned to work and infected half the Government…]

Surely being in isolation gets progressively easier. Day 1 hard, Day 5 not so hard, Day 10 easier still until you get used to it. The challenge then will be remembering it is okay to go outside again. Many, many people trying to understand how on earth we get out of the current patch and into something more like normality. How long before people just flout the rules and risk the consequences?

Anyway, we all made it through week 1. Some countries are heading into week 3. It’s hard to take something seriously unless and until it affects you. If Boris and Idris and Prince Charles can pull through, the risk is that people start to see it as no big deal once again, which is the attitude that got us into the current mess.

Day 10

Things are turning better on the numbers, but the recriminations gain volume. Food is back, milk is back, but still patchy supply of bog roll, you lunatics. Use a leaf. [Fond memories…]

Testing. There is no antibody test that was promised last week. Turns out that was another promise made by someone detached from earth. Even the antigen testing is behind schedule, no matter how you gloss it. But testing doesn’t tell you much without a cure, unless you’re a frontline worker. Those tests seem to be going well. Ours is Ikea. Stop laughing.

Exit strategy. Trump admits Easter was a joke. Ha ha. The only sensible man in America, the NY Governor, is leaning towards late May for restrictions to ease. If he leans that way, I’m leaning with him. Rather him than Gove in the trench.

Forecast: I can see clearly now the rain is gone. I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind.

Day 11

What an omnishambles. Whoever did the presser yesterday thought that PHE and PPE were the same thing. One is Public Health England. The other is not. The fact that the lady from PHE was stood next to him is probably the explanation.

The SME loan scheme has collapsed. Five small lenders pulled out due to insolvency. Yep, the banks ran out of cash. And the big lenders were told off for insisting on personal guarantees. Watch for this in the presser today or tomorrow. Meanwhile HSBC, unhappy at not being able to line the fat cats’ pockets, is clearing out and going to Hong Kong as soon as the dust settles. So long.

Chaos at Ikea. The wrong people turned up at the wrong time, causing traffic jams. The wrong people were sent packing and the right people eventually, one hopes, got tested.

Nobody could make this up. Forecast: doomed.

Day 15

An important milestone. The initial isolation or ‘hard measures’ period is set to last 21 days, so very soon we will learn how long this will be extended. The smart money seems to be on another 21 days, but with a loosening thereafter. All parents want to know is: when will school reopen? [Answer from the teachers: never, over our dead – ah… ]

The arms dealers of the middle east, who own London’s Nightingale Hospital, the largest intensive care unit in the world, have volunteered not to charge HMG for the privilege. Better known (of course) as the venue for the best arms fair in the world, the only surprise is how quickly it was created. [Fun sideshow but it was never used.]

Meanwhile, the footballers are clinging to every last centime. Gary Lineker made an interesting but futile point about them being working-class heroes. Maybe in your day Gary, but their stock is at an all-time low and sinking. Footballer mentality is practically as insolvent as it is liquid. Much of the footballing culture is cretinous in the extreme. Contrast to McLaren, whose drivers took an immediate pay cut while their engineers invented some medical devices. Those rich kids in fast cars could get it right first time, but not our working-class heroes?

Forecast: with the Queen quoting Vera, you know the balloon has gone up.

Day 17

What a strange 48 hours. Shortly after the Queen’s speech on Sunday, only the 5th in her reign apart from the regular Christmas specials, the Prime Minister threw in the towel and went to hospital. That was okay because it was just for ‘tests’ but my healthcare contact immediately said there was no such thing and he must have been admitted. Cue mad scramble to hide the fact that no PM in modern times has been to intensive care. Now that he seems to be on the mend, we can mention Lord Palmerston.

Rishi was back today, on the day that NatWest Markets (the caring bank, the bank that likes to say no, every little helps) has sacked over 100 staff in a typically thoughtful decision. Also the day that Tesco, having been helped to pay staff by the government, decided to line the pockets of the City fat cats once again in an act of crass arrogance. Not since the Premier League outcry last week has such poor PR been on display.

Forecast: Work 20 years and they’ll take care of you. They’ll buy you a diamond, they’ll send you on a cruise, give it all your money, give it all your time. Then wake up one morning and wonder why. Let me up – I’ve had enough. [That’s right, this is Thomas Earl Petty. My Dead Ringers phase…]

Day 18

Maundy Thursday, or Good Thursday. Chelsea Pensioners. Money from HM The Queen. Today, Her Majesty will be doing it via PayPal. What is going on?

The Internet Food Court died. Ocado is in ITU on oxygen. And now Tesco has admitted that over 90% of food must be bought in-store because they have no reliable delivery mechanism. Deliveroo is in meltdown because it can’t protects its deliverers, and because the restaurants shut. Skype and similar systems continue to crash. We have plugged in our non-battery, non-wireless landline. Netflix has downgraded its streaming quality because the internet broke. So we’re back on the TV roof aerial, just in case. Nothing tests technology like Armageddon. The funny part is that remote working was supposed to be the antidote to Armageddon, the cure for climate change. It has now woken up.

Those of use who saw 2007-8 and its aftermath from the inside can see parallels. RBS are right: this crash is nothing like the last crash. But they never are. This recession is always different, and yet the same, as the last recession. What they all have in common is that they bring change at a rapid pace. Society is changing in permanent ways.

Forecast: In the long run, it’s all good. In the long run, of course, everything is fatal.

Things went quiet in my diary over Easter, which coincided with Dominic Cummings holing up in an illegally built cottage in Durham for which Council Tax has not been paid. It also coincided with some of the driest, warmest spring weather in the history of our islands.

Day 23

There is news from behind the scenes. The new-design ventilators have not been approved for use and some of them never will be. The F1-led group seems out of favour. Already, just a month into HMG’s ventilator challenge, it has emerged that invasive ventilation is not helping with the current disease. There are now around 10,000 ventilators available to UK patients. Slashing their target from 30,000 to 18,000 units, the government has changed its mind: high-tech invasive ventilation is no panacea.

After the Huawei and Zoom fiascos, attention has turned to an unknown UK company called (of all things) Imagination Technologies. Many governments have been behind the US in understanding that China and Russia are fully engaged in a new cold war for our computer infrastructure. If naked men can bomb virtual classrooms in Asia, runs the logic, then anything else is possible too.

Imagination has been forcibly taken over by the Chinese government in exactly the way some predicted Huawei might be. At the moment, Huawei remains the exception that proves the rule: if China keeps Huawei clean, they can say ‘look, we don’t interfere’ while at the same time interfering in every other imaginable (geddit) way elsewhere.

Forecast: grey.

Day 24

We reach the fulcrum. The official decision on lockdown is due tomorrow, April 16th. The government have two options: stop the lockdown, or continue the lockdown. It’s a no-brainer. If they continue, it will be for another 3-week period. Tantalisingly, this takes us to Thursday 7th May and, as if decreed by on high, for one year only, our public holiday is Friday 8th May. What a gift! And it’s VE Day!

So what’s the real question? The right question: how (not when) do we ease off?

In a nutshell, we can’t go back to work until the schools open. But we can’t take the kids to school if we’re not allowed out of the house. So: all parents are hoping for a reopening of the schools (region by region) on Monday 11th May. Parents to be permitted to leave the house for this purpose only. [Never happened.]

Restaurants, bars, cinemas, theatres are not going to open that soon. It’s too much of a risk. Austria and Spain are allowing hairdressers to open soon, or stay open. Makes sense, although now I can use a trimmer it’s not a big issue. [This was right though.]

Forecast: I’m putting tinfoil up on the windows. Lying down in the dark to dream. I don’t want to see their faces. I don’t want to hear them scream. Splendid Isolation. [Yes, this is Warren William Zevon.]

Day 25

We are now midway through the strict lockdown, which the Economist correctly refers to as a form of house arrest. Imagine, if you can, New Year’s Day 2020. Could you have imagined any of this? Why not? The virus was already on the news back then.

I want to try and step back a little today, because this is the beginning of the end of these measures. Burger King are reopening in a handful of locations to test their social distancing measures. If that’s not a green shoot, I don’t know what is. But what will we learn from all this disruption? One of the things we will learn is that David Icke is more like Eamonn Holmes than you expected.

This comes down to education, and education could have solved a lot of coronissues. If we had not forgotten how to wash our hands. If we had understood how coughs can spread infection further than two metres. If we knew how a virus is night and day from bacteria, and how COVID-19 is not a virus but a disease caused by the virus known as SARS-CoV-2. If we had all concentrated more at school. How much better might this have been?

Day 26

The Times today suggests that banks have been slow to lend to SMEs struggling to survive due to EU state aid rules. There are two separate issues related by two separate sources. This was always the issue with Britain in the EU: it sometimes felt that only Britain followed the rules. These rules have not stopped Germany bailing out its companies in a much grander way. Britain needs to shape up.

Over at The Economist, worse news. Although we are looking at reducing lockdown measures around 7th May, this will not be business as usual. You can forget about flying anywhere for the better part of a year. The issue is social distancing, which is necessary until a vaccine arrives a year from now. What industries will struggle most with it? Airlines! Cramming yourself into a recycled-air cylinder is not a good idea. Restaurants! Tables need to be 2+ metres apart. Some companies will struggle for a year or more. Some customers will never return. Football! Better watch on TV.

Is any of this true? This is just the new roller-coaster of a global pandemic. Everyone has a prediction, and the louder they shout the less you should listen.

Forecast: head down, read a book. One written before this began.

Day 32

One calendar month since it began. There is an episode of the X Files, the first one I saw, that begins like The Thing. A team of scientists is stuck in the ice. One by one, they kill each other or die of something else. It’s worth a look if you want cheering up.

Talk in Anglophone countries of an ‘exit strategy’ was abruptly halted yesterday by the UK and US. Once Whitty stood up and said ‘this will take a year,’ the media fell silent. They were expecting ‘this is how we get back to normal on May 11’. At last, some facts are emerging.

The UK has launched a 20,000 random sampling of the population to show what many of us have suspected for months. That you are most contagious during the time that an antigen test will show negative, and before symptoms begin. That masks are therefore useless. Something like 40-60% of positive antigen tests are from patients with no symptoms. Fully half of the UK population may have had the disease already. Early results due in a month. The UK will ‘suggest’ non-surgical face-covering for those that fancy it, but will never mandate the use of surgical equipment which cannot be provided anyway.

Forecast: for some businesses, yesterday was a reminder that they are no longer viable. They cannot survive into 2021 without a full reopening.

Day 45

It’s all hotting up. At least at Neil Ferguson’s home, scene of various lockdown house parties. If only he had seen what happened to Catherine Calderwood.

Britain is going back to work from May 11th, but nobody knows about the schools, most likely to dip their toe in the water from 1st June. And after Aer Lingus filled a flight to bursting this week, with no masks, and the images got out, the aviation return might be slower than they hoped. These days, one photo is enough to ground an airline.

So just as soon as we got used to lockdown, it ended. But not for all. Restaurants, bars, theatres, cinemas, are all scratching their heads. Hairdressers likewise. Some of these are essential to most of us, yet how can they operate during social distancing? The truth is they cannot. Something has to give: either the new NHS app works, or antibody tests reveal that we’ve all had it anyway, or something else happens. But you’re not going to be eating a meal for two wearing a mask. [Looking like July 4th now.]

Forecast: We’ll miss being given a legal excuse for not hugging or saying hello. We might as well start talking about the weather again.

Day 51

We’re on the downward slopes, having skied to safety with the hoards of snipers following behind. We blew up the hut and drove the girl and the car, an Aston as it happens, to glorious safety. No, not our response to a virus, but the plot of the Living Daylights.

Rishi will today announce that the small business relief schemes will continue, but only if you’re one of the unhappy few who cannot reopen until July or later. If reports are correct, the airlines will not be flying properly until 2021. [Possibly true, who knows?]

Elsewhere, you might try to wear a mask on alternate Thursdays (I never could get the hang of Thursdays, said Arthur) and you can mix with your mother-in-law’s stepsister lunchtimes only for the month of May, as long as the cube root of the date is a prime number.

Forecast: We’re all in this together, but some are more equal than others.

Day 53

It’s over. The National Trust is re-opening its car parks in England. Never has an organisation better represented middle England. You won’t be going abroad this summer, but who cares? Head off to Wal…. to Cornwall or Scarborough and see a pile of rocks, eat ice cream on the beach in a gale and smile. Not since 1950 has an old seaside holiday looked so good. Cheese!

The number of deaths in the UK in March 2019 exceeded the number of UK deaths in March 2020.

Be careful which statistics you choose. And who can believe teachers? They haven’t done any teaching during the crisis, then they demand three weeks to prepare for re-entry. But they prepared for closure in 48 hours. And now they have been given 3 weeks’ notice, they ask for six! And some unions have told them not to cooperate with plans to re-open. These people have key-worker status. Astonishing.

Sorry, just auditioning for the Daily Mail Online. Just remember who helped you in this crisis, and who did not.

Forecast: grey and cloudy outside, sunny joy inside. If you spent lockdown redecorating and gardening, luck you. Be thankful you’re not renting a hovel in Tower Hamlets with eight kids.

Day 54

When I started this irregular column, the news was unremittingly bleak and changing so fast that I almost had to write twice a day. Then we reached a plateau and news slowed. Now we’re back in the fast lane, with so much to write about that two columns a day isn’t enough.

It was always supposed to be my answer to the “current situation” after someone pointed out that I knew nothing about invasive ventilation. My chances of designing a better ITU ventilator than Dyson, or even Ron Dennis, were not as high as approaching zero. So I did what I always do anyway, I wrote. Whilst writing this column for you, I have been reading over a thousand pages of memoirs by the late Clive James. He was a childhood hero of mine because he could make anyone laugh so hard it often resulted in life-changing injuries. I got to know Ian Shircore, one of his many fans, and a ghostwriter of some repute. Shircore looks like a 1980s Clive Sinclair. Nothing like Clive James.

But Shircore led me to a new avenue, one I previously thought to be festooned with ground elder. The kind of stuff that you can get rid of, but will be back twice as bad within half an hour. That revelation led to some others and some new writing gigs. Funny how life goes.

Day 60

It’s finally over. [Yes, not the first time I said it was over. But it reflects the idea that each new unlocking felt like a new dawn.] No deaths in London for 48 hours or more. No new cases in London. The builders are back on our road. The traffic is back. I went for a run. Things are looking up.

If you have already forsaken the British press of all stripes, be calm. There are good journalists working on bad papers, and bad journalists on good ones. Journalists don’t do science at school for one very good reason. Yes, that’s it.

Britain entered lockdown later because our caseload spiked later. We are a little slow leaving lockdown because our lives were awful. Every day: five hours’ gridlock on the M25, or three hours on the tube for £6k a year. All gone. It wasn’t necessary, except in the eyes of the slavedrivers who ‘manage’ things. It has gone forever. If you don’t work in an office, your social cachet has skyrocketed. We noticed you too late. If you work for a small business instead of a tax-dodging (surely ‘avoiding’? Ed.) global corporation, well done. We noticed you too late, but we have noticed you now.

What the papers won’t tell you is that people never change. Not in one lifetime, or two. But every pandemic changes society in ways modelled by the very people we used to ignore. Happy days.

Day N

It seems that Day N <> 84. The 12-week timetable initially given to ‘fight’ the virus is coming in ahead of schedule. From 1st June, schools and open-air retail can open. From 15th June, all other retail and additional school year groups return. To all intents, the UK lockdown is over.

Of course, this is not the end of the story. There will be an inquiry, as always, sometime in the autumn of possibly 2021. By then, this will be a hazy memory and you’ll be back in the car going nowhere, or coughing into an unknown face on the tube.

What should be clear already though, is that the power to change this future vision is yours alone. What is equally clear to me is that no human in history has ever ‘fought’ a virus. Our lockdown approach is borrowed from the middle ages. When the chips were down and the cards were on the table, science failed. In its place, people congregated on Zoom. Technology wobbled, but it showed us a greener future. Don’t bank on a vaccine. Get out there today.

Forecast: life is what you make of it.