It may seem an odd thing to say when in the UK we have had more people contracting Covid in recent weeks than ever before, but I think this week may mark the end of the pandemic. Numbers of cases are now reducing, and numbers of people in hospital have not reached anything like the peaks of last spring. When we look back in a year’s time I think Omicron may be seen as having been a good thing. It has given millions of people increased immunity, adding to the benefits of vaccines, without immobilising the NHS or killing vast numbers. Of course I know that every death is a tragedy, and I feel for everyone impacted, but at last can we now get back to normality?
I wonder if living more normally is one reason that the UK public have been so angry this week at the revelation that Boris Johnson attended a party in his garden, while we were in full lockdown back in 2020. Most of us have suffered materially in the past two years, whether through loss of friends and relatives, or damage to our own physical and mental health. Despite this we have got on with our lives. We have built up anger with nowhere to direct it. Now perhaps we can let that out a little. And when we find out that the likes of Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, Dominic Cummings have been ignoring or bending rules, then that anger overflows.
Personally this week I have felt a mixture of anger, fascination with the politics and some sympathy with those involved. The latter may seem a contradiction, but I do have sympathy with the civil servants who had been putting themselves at risk, working 12+ hours a day in close contact with each other to try to help this country through the pandemic. Back in May 2020 I was leading a large operational team, most of whom where working at home, but some who had to work in an office. Those people did not have alcohol or parties but sometimes they would let of steam in the grassy area outside the office. They would maintain social distance and I believe followed all rules, but to someone outside would it look as if they were taking things seriously enough? I don’t know.
In the UK we have a reputation that we can laugh at anything, smile in the most trying of circumstances, make fun of serious events. We all needed those safety valves in May 2020, as we do now. If this is truly the end of the pandemic, let’s adopt the ideas of the recently deceased Desmond Tutu, who led the Truth and Reconciliation reviews after apartheid was dismantled. Let’s try to find out the truth about what happened and how it could have been better, let’s apologise for things that were wrong. And then let’s move on.
In the summer I wrote a blog about why I thought the UK government was pursuing a herd immunity strategy by deliberately letting people get ill with Covid. I said that there was nothing wrong with this strategy but they should be honest about it.
Six months later I am convinced I was right, and if Omicron had not arrived, we would be in a good position for this winter. Unfortunately we are now faced with yet more Christmas restrictions and in some ways it feels as if we are back to square one. However, I think there are at least four reasons we should be more optimistic this time:
Vaccines do make a difference. I realise there are still some anti-vaxxers around who will call me a sheep, but I have had all three doses, and I am convinced they will help reduce the severity of any illness.
Natural immunity makes a difference. Like vaccines it may not stop people catching Omicron, but it should help reduce the severity.
We have free lateral flow tests widely available. If people are sensible and test themselves before meeting up, there is a good chance we can reduce the spread a little at least.
I am optimistic that Omicron is less severe than Delta and Alpha. I realise the government and doctors are underplaying this because they want to encourage boosters, but it does appear to be the case in South Africa, and we have always been told by virologists that at some point there would be a fast spreading weak variant, just as there was at the end of Spanish flu, a hundred years ago.
There has to be at least a reasonable chance that by February we will be through this pandemic. Covid will be with us forever no doubt, just like flu and the common cold, but after two years we could all do with a break.
I realise this is not my normal blog about how great retirement is, but it does reflect what is on my mind this week. I have been looking after my Mum in Salisbury this week, after she had ten days in hospital with heart problems. So I am just very conscious about infections.
I have spent much of the past week looking at cars. Buying a car was meant to be one of my first jobs after coming back from the narrowboat. We currently have a Nissan Qashqai SUV and a bright yellow little Fiat 500. While we were away we decided we could live with just one car, and that should be a slightly larger SUV. So this week I have been trawling both Internet and car showrooms, looking at options. We came close with a Mazda CX-5 but I just seem to be unable to make the decision. That is unlike me, so I thought I would do a bit of self-help in my blog, to examine why, and then decide on next steps.
We have always loved the cars we have bought and while the cars we have seen have been perfectly logical and sensible, I just haven’t felt the passion.
At the moment we can’t downsize to one car because our son, Tin, needs a car to get to work, on the other side of Edinburgh. Public transport would take several hours.
The car we need to replace is the Fiat, because after its last MOT, it looks like it could have issues in the future. But we have been looking at SUVs, and with the Qashqai would end up with two SUVs.
Given climate change I really don’t want to own two SUVs.
I feel we ought to be looking at electric, but with a fair few long journeys, the range is not quite there yet in second hand cars.
We have spent a lot of money on the Qashqai in the past 12 months and that will be lost if we sell it.
It is a bad time to buy a second hand car. Because of part shortages, there are not enough new cars coming off production lines, so customers are looking at second hand instead, and that has made the market really hot.
If we have to have two cars, what I really want is a toy car for me – preferably a small convertible. But I know that will just annoy Mandy, who wants the bigger SUV. So I am prevaricating.
Right now we have lots of options, and as soon as we make a decision we have no options.
But I don’t feel happy not making a decision, so need to do something.
What next steps? I have some long car journeys around the UK over the next few days, as I go to visit family members that I have not seen since the first lockdown. That will give me time to consider what I really want. I also need to talk more to Mandy. Or perhaps I’ll just wait till she reads this blog…
Today marks a milestone for me. Two weeks after my second vaccination means that my immunity to Covid is about as high as it will get. My chance of getting the disease is much lower now, and even more importantly, the chance of me getting seriously ill and dying is very small. It makes me feel invincible.
Yesterday lunchtime Mandy and I felt invincible enough to go across the road for lunch at our local bistro. This new café opened at the start of last year and the owner, Kumar, was immediately faced with months of lockdown, and yet no reduction in costs for things like council tax and licensing. We have really wanted to support this local business but it is a small room and we were honestly scared, so yesterday was the first time. Kumar could not have been more welcoming. I had their oriental vegetarian burger, made with lentils, lemongrass and coriander and it was delicious. And maybe because we have both had two jabs/jags now, we did not feel nervous at all. Thanks Kumar.
I was reading this morning a report from the Bank of England, saying that the UK economy is growing rapidly as we have opened up again. That is good news and I guess we all need to put particular effort into supporting local businesses. Amazon has had quite enough of my trade this past year.
The other thing I should have been be getting excited about this week was our expected trip down to England with our narrowboat. We were meant to be leaving our marina on Tuesday for a little tour of the Scottish lowland canals, before lifting the boat out of the water near Glasgow, and taking it down south. Unfortunately Scottish Canals have a big problem this week with the main water feed into the Forth and Clyde canal, and all boat movements have been stopped. This is immensely frustrating because there is nothing we can do. Even being invincible is no help.
How are you feeling this week? Invincible? Frustrated? Excited?
I have been on a bit of a tour this week. From Scotland I drove down to Sheffield for a walk with my son, daughter in law and dog, and then on to Market Harborough for training courses in plumbing and electrics at the Narrowboat Skills Centre, Debdale Wharf, working in a classroom with four other students and an instructor. Since I was in England, I took the opportunity to meet up with a friend from when I was working, and I visited an aunt and her family. Both live relatively close to where I was training. I have eaten in restaurants and pubs. I have even been to a cinema. Then tonight I head on to stay with my Mum for the weekend. We talk most days, but as with my son, it will be the first time I have been with her in eighteen months.
I have to confess that after so long being generally isolated, it has felt very strange to be with people again – strange and a little scary. In some ways I would like to retreat back into my safe bubble at home. News from countries like India continues to be frightening. But there are good reasons to start meeting people again:
Isolation is not great for my mental health. I know that everyone has reacted differently, but now is the time for me to come back blinking into the light.
The economy needs growth. Forecasts are for a huge “bounce” in the second half of this year, but that will only happen if we get back to work and back to leisure activities.
I need to relearn social skills. I have written in a previous blog that I have introvert and extravert traits. This last year has made me more introvert and now I need to get out there, or hide in a corner.
There are many things I want to do in my retirement and I can’t do them if I am scared of being with other people.
The vaccines work. Even where the faster spreading variants are prevalent, vaccinated people seem to be relatively safe from severe symptoms.
Gossip is fun. I am not sure if you have found the same, but remote conversations lack nuance and body language, and so the “water cooler” gossip doesn’t happen the same way. I know it is naughty but we all like it!
If not now, then when? I can’t wait for everything to get fully back to normal, because I think that may take decades.
Teams work. Next week I am meeting a couple of fellow narrowboaters to see if we can travel the river Clyde together late in June. It is a big tidal river and frightening alone on a flat bottomed boat, but as a team we will all feel safer and can help each other.
People are interesting. I have always been a people watcher. I love the ways we are all different and can learn from each other.
I have really missed my friends and family. Zoom, FaceTime and Teams are great, but are not the same as being with people.
What about you? Have you sneaked out of lockdown to meet people, are you still prohibited, or like me are you now just beginning again?
I was out walking along the coast in Fife yesterday with one of my sons and my sister in law. I realised that I was not sure what day it was. One of the benefits of retirement is that I can do anything on any day. No longer do I need to wait till the weekend to go for a long walk, or go shopping, or fix the crack in the bathroom tiling, or visit my new great nephew for a cuddle, all of which I did yesterday. Rather I have the flexibility to avoid crowds and do what I want when I want.
But the downside can be that every day is like another. I chatted to my sister in law, who has been retired for seven years. She deliberately builds routine into her weeks to help provide some structure. She eats fish on a Friday. She cooks a roast Sunday lunch. She tries to make Friday evening as relaxing as it was when she was working. Maybe I should do the same. But I am in that honeymoon period of retirement when the freedom to do anything on any day feels simply wonderful.
I know when people say “they have no idea what day it is” they often mean that the person is losing it. Sadly, my father has advanced Alzheimer’s dementia and really does not understand the world any more. And I am wary of the naysayers in my old work, who told me not to retire because my brain would turn to mush. And I am aware that even though my life now has few meetings and appointments, I recently missed a meeting with my financial adviser, not because I was too busy, but because I was not busy enough. But it honestly feels great to wake up in a morning and know that today I can do pretty much anything I want.
Especially now lockdown is easing in the UK, those freedoms are widening. On Sunday I head down to England for some narrowboat training. I had better not miss the course because I forget what day it is!
What about you? If you are retired do you always remember the day? If you are working, do you long to be freed from the constraints of routine?
On Sunday my wife and I had our first doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and it made me reflect on why we all should be vaccinated if we are able.
It can save our lives. Admittedly, as an overweight mid fifties man, I am more at risk, but the evidence shows that the vaccines prevent near 100% of deaths from Covid-19, in all age groups.
It will save other people’s lives. There is clear evidence now that the vaccines reduce the transmission of Covid from you to others and therefore helps stop the spread of disease to those that are not yet vaccinated.
It protects the health service. Sadly we have seen some health services across the world come close to breaking down in recent weeks. In the UK, we got pretty close in January. None of us want to see people get sick and die without the support of doctors and nurses.
Even for young adults, Long Covid is a real risk. The vaccine helps stop the disease and protects you against long term symptoms.
The vaccine does not discriminate. Unfortunately the disease is more prevalent in some ethnic groups, The vaccine however, is effective for all. In Scotland, the biggest challenge with vaccine take-up is amongst Polish and some Black communities. We need to protect them too.
It gives our children a future. Not only does the vaccine for adults mean that fewer children will lose their parents, but it means that they can have normal lives at school and with their friends. There has been more than enough damage in the past year.
Any side effects are well worth it. My wife had no real side effects at all. I had a pretty bad 24 hours, with fever and muscular ache. But a day later I was feeling fine. And the benefits far outweigh any issues. If I got Covid it would be so much worse. If anyone is worried about the risk of getting blood clots for instance, the most likely way of getting a clot that will kill you is to catch Covid.
The vaccines have been properly tested. Some people are suggesting that because the vaccines were approved in months rather than years, there is more risk. This is not true. No corners were cut. Instead, literally billions of pounds were spent accelerating the testing.
All the vaccines work. In the UK we have Pfizer and AstraZeneca with millions and millions of jags now given safely. The other approved vaccines are also rolling out effectively – Moderna, Sputnik, Sinovac. I am looking forward to the new French vaccine Valneva being approved because it is manufactured a couple of miles from where I live. The evidence I have seen is that against hospitalisation and death, they all protect equally well.
It is better than another lockdown. I have written before about how fed up we are all getting with the restrictions. We have a clear route map out now, but it can only happen with the extensive vaccine rollout.
I apologise for writing a preachy blog. I also apologise for winding up those that really want the vaccine and have not yet been offered it. But this is important. If you have been offered the vaccine, please take it up. I respect people who choose not to take up the vaccine. But I think they are mistaken.
And if you are not sure, rather than listening to internet guff (even this blog!) please talk to a healthcare professional.
Throughout my career I have engaged in personality tests as part of team building with my colleagues. One of the key traits that is tested is whether people are extraverts or introverts. Extraverts gain their energy from interacting with others. Introverts get their energy from themselves. This is important at work and at home because often introverts can be ignored by the loud brash extraverts, and extraverts can be seen as thoughtless by the introverts, who prefer to consider before speaking.
When I have done the tests I usually get confusing results. In some situations I am strongly extravert. There are few things I like better than to stand up in front of hundreds of people to make a speech. But I am also at my happiest by myself on a walk with my dogs in the quiet countryside and I have some strong introvert tendencies.
This week I heard about omniverts and ambiverts. Omniverts are just like me – in different situations they respond differently and get their energy differently. Ambiverts are happy in all situations and don’t show preference either way.
Under lockdown, very many of us are missing other people and long to be back in crowds. For extraverts this must be particularly painful. We just want the energy from interacting with others. We talk about how we will never complain again about busy bars, queues, jostling on public transport.
But I have noticed this week that as the rules are loosening and the paths and open spaces have got more busy, that I have felt almost claustrophobic, and glad to get back to my own space. So I wonder if this pandemic has changed us all into omniverts or ambiverts. Introverts will have realised that they do miss time with people. Extraverts will have realised that they can get energy from the peace of being alone.
What do you think? Which personality type are you and how has a year of isolation affected you?
A couple of things have made me reflect on my mental health this week. I read an excellent blog from someone managing depression. I won’t share it here because it is personal but it reflected on how difficult it is to balance taking ownership for solving mental health issues yourself, with the need to ask for help. The author is in the final year of university, with the stress of coursework and exams reinforced by demoralising rejections for job applications. That would be the same in any year, but layer on a lockdown when the opportunity to get out, get away and get support is more difficult, and depression looms all too easily.
The second thing is much more positive for me. For some reason this week I have had quite a few friends reaching out to check in. It is amazing how much difference it makes to receive a message asking how you are. I have certainly found this lockdown the hardest. I am not sure if that is because now I am retired, I do not have work to distract me; or if it is because vaccines make the end seem so close and so far at the same time. But the small contacts with friends have certainly helped. A lesson for me that I should make more effort to stay in touch. Not a strength for me!
My wife and I have been talking about what we do with our plans for this year. We were meant to be staying on Orkney for six weeks and then travelling the English canals in our narrowboat. Realistically the Scottish government seems to be saying it will be summer before we are allowed to travel. Perhaps we should see more of Scotland and postpone moving the boat. Or move it at the end of the season. We are just looking forward to the time we can make decisions without restrictions.
Has the lockdown affected your mental health too? If so, how are you managing it? I’d love a comment to hear from you.