3rd January 2021
Life During a Coronavirus Pandemic: A COVID Christmas in Week 40
I did not get to Madeira for Christmas. After a short break in Gatwick Airport I return to Dorset for a quiet and solitary celebration.
Like so many people my Christmas plans were overtaken by a surge in COVID-19 cases, the introduction of a new, stricter Tier 4 and the UK government's U-turn regarding a break at Christmas. Celebrations were reduced to one-day only. This will be my first Christmas at home for twenty-four years so it is a novel situation for me.
Monday 21 December 2020
I get up at 4 am this morning and head for the North Terminal where I join the queue to drop my case off for the 07.05 flight to Funchal. I had been warned that Portugal might close its borders to travellers from the UK but this had not been confirmed and it was not clear whether a ban would include the island of Madeira. The number of passengers dropping of bags is much lower than normal but this is not surprising as so many borders are now closed to the UK. When it is my turn the girl on the desk dispassionately announces that my flight to Funchal has been cancelled – all Easyjet flights to Portugal have been cancelled. I send an email to Solos confirming their worst fears. Then I check to see if there are any other airlines still flying to Portugal today. I have a negative COVID-19 test so there might be a slim chance I can get there. I have been directed to the Help Desk but the girls manning this desk are concentrating on filling the flights to Spain that are still operating. It is surprising how many people are willing to change destinations on the spur of the moment, grab a new boarding pass and race to the boarding gate.
My priority is to inform the office our flight has been cancelled and to find members of the group. Four of them have managed to drop their bags off and are unaware that our flight has been cancelled. I find a member of staff who retrieves the bags for us. There is nothing more I can do. As I have an off-peak train ticket I have to wait until 09.30 before I can travel back to Dorset. Numb with disappointment I make my way to Costa Coffee and have a solitary breakfast of porridge and a cappuccino.
I settle down to do some work. There are not many people around and it is relatively peaceful until a woman starts a skype phone call with the volume as loud as she can make it. I put my headphones on and listen to music while I work. A sniffer dog comes into Costa Coffee and checks my suitcase but it does not interest him and he moves on. At 9.30 am I get the shuttle from the North Terminal to the train station in the South Terminal. There is hardly anyone in the North Terminal and the South Terminal is eerily empty. I have to wait a while for a train to Bedford and then it is a slow one that stops everywhere except the stations between St Pancras and St Albans. I am heading for one of these stations. I will either have to change at St Pancras or go through to St Albans and then get a train back to my station. When I got the train yesterday there was a notice saying all tickets are valid in First Class so I sat in First Class – on my own.
It is a twelve carriage-train but I am not aware of any other passengers on the train throughout the entire journey to St Albans. The train seems to get slower and slower but at least I can charge my laptop so I am able to work throughout the journey. I start researching other possibilities for Christmas. Dorset is still in Tier 2 so I ponder the possibility of finding a nice, local hotel for a Christmas break. I am still deep in thought when I cross the line at St Albans and get on the train back down the line. The wrong train and twenty minutes later I am on a deserted platform at St Pancras mainline station.
I cross the line again and finally reach my destination, collect my car and head for the nearest branch of Sainsbury’s to do a food shop. The store is very busy and there is a queue outside. France has closed its borders to all traffic from the UK so all deliveries between the UK and Europe have stopped and hundreds of lorries are parked on the M20 and at a disused airfield. There have been warnings of food shortages so the big Stock Up has begun. I am able to buy everything I need for a solitary Christmas at the flat and make my way back to Dorset.
Lorries carrying goods to and from France were stacked up in Kent overnight following the French ban on all traffic. Politicians are trying to find a way to restart travel. The UK government tries to calm the nation in a press conference by saying that delay in supplies will only affect a small minority of food and medicine coming into Britain and that the delays affected only “human-handled freight,” accounting for only around a fifth of the total headed for Europe. Talks taking place with the French president Emmanuel Macron will be considering a mass testing programme for lorry drivers to solve the crisis.
Tuesday 22 December 2020
I am woken by iPhone alarm but the iPhone is in the sitting room so I get and go through to switch it off. It is still very dark but I am up so I have some breakfast and then start investigating ISAs. The interest rates have gone so low I wanted to see if I could find a better rate for my ISA. I succeed and set the transfer in motion. I lost track of time and when I finish it is light. But it is grey and miserable but mild outside so I stay in and do some writing. In the afternoon, thinking I should do something special for Christmas Day I walk to Canford Cliffs village and order some smoked salmon, sourdough bread, mince pies and Christmas cake. I will collect it on Christmas Eve. I linger in the village to enjoy the Christmas lights.
Walking back to the flat I get caught in a sudden, heavy shower. I am tempted to take cover in the marquee beside The Canford pub – set up so people can eat and drink outside in line with Tier 2 rules relating to COVID-19 safeguards. It looks cosy and dry. But I don’t have far to go so I carry on. When I get back to the flat I hang my wet clothes in in front of the radiators and settle down to watch the news. It is not good.
England has been put on notice for a New Year lockdown after the government's chief scientific adviser warned that an extension of Tier 4 restrictions may be needed. With the new variant now surging across the UK, an announcement that large areas of England will join London and parts of southeast England in Tier 4 is expected on Wednesday 30 December, when the next review of the tier system is due. The clampdown is expected to come into force in the new year. Government scientific advisers have claimed that unless the government imposed another national lockdown within days thousands of lives could be lost in a "human disaster".
In another highly significant development at the Downing Street news conference, Mr Johnson signalled that another government U-turn may be on the way on schools reopening in January. After repeatedly saying during the pandemic that keeping schools open was a "national priority", the prime minister said the return of pupils to classrooms in the New Year would be kept under review.
The list of countries limiting or banning UK travel has now topped 50 countries – across Europe and the rest of the world. Despite swift action to prevent the spread of the new, fast-spreading variant of COVID-19 it has been detected in the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia. South Africa has a different, yet still more rapidly spreading mutation to contend with, known as 501.V2.
Wednesday 23 December 2020
I did not sleep well last night and get up as soon as my alarm goes off. I have started watching box sets on my laptop and switch that on to watch another episode of Dr Foster while having breakfast. Then I start sorting out images to post on my website to illustrate my annual Christmas letter. That takes all morning. This afternoon I have an emergency appointment with a dentist in Hamworthy, a suburb of Poole. While struggling to unload the car in heavy rain and gale force wind two days ago my umbrella blew inside out and then took off, whacking me in the face. Result – one broken tooth. Fortunately, I have dental insurance and they organised an emergency appointment for me. The dentist was kind and gentle and even persuaded me to let him drill my tooth without an injection. That was quite a feat as I would have an injection to have my teeth cleaned, if it was allowed. As the weather has been grey and miserable again today I have not been tempted outside. So, to compensate (and follow government guidelines) I open the patio door, pull my exercise bike in front of it and pedal madly for 20 minutes. This justifies the opening of a bottle of vino spumante (Italian champagne) to enjoy a glass with my supper.
A swathe of areas hit by surging coronavirus rates are likely to be placed into the strictest Tier 4 from Boxing Day. Yesterday, Britain recorded 691 COVID-19 deaths – the second highest daily toll since last May. Tier 4 is a "stay home" measure akin to lockdown that was introduced in London and much of the South-East last week. Many areas in the lower tiers could be moved to Tier 3 forcing the closure of all pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops. Health officials are concerned that the exodus of large numbers of people from Tier 4 areas into the Midlands and the North has fuelled the spread. A source at Whitehall said that as the new variant continues to bleed across the country it makes no sense to keep anyone out of Tier 4 which would amount to a national lockdown whether it is called that or not. Later today it was confirmed that millions more will be moved into Tier 4 from Boxing Day.
Scuffles broke out at Dover as lorry drivers stranded at the Kent port clashed with police. Thousands of lorries have been stuck after France stopped them crossing the Channel. They have been lined up on the M20 motorway and at Manston airfield after the French government took action on Sunday night. UK and French governments have now reached a deal to reopen the border from today - but lorry drivers must test negative for COVID before they can travel. The military and NHS teams are to use quick turnaround tests on the hauliers, who come from all around Europe and are desperate to get home.
Rail, air and sea services to France will resume today after the deal was agreed on Tuesday evening following earlier talks between Boris Johnson and President Macron. Anyone travelling must show proof of a negative coronavirus test taken within the previous 72 hours. Entry will only be granted to those travelling for urgent reasons, including lorry drivers, French citizens, and British citizens with French residency. Meanwhile, UK supermarkets have warned of shortages of some fresh fruit and vegetables if the disruption continues. The deal with France will be reviewed on 31 December, but could run until 6 January.
Thursday 24 December 2020
The sun comes out as soon as it starts to get light so I to out early. I walk along the promenade to Branksome Chine and then take the path up to Pinecliff Gardens. I have done this walk several times but today, for the first time, I notice a chunk of fossilised tree on display. It was brought to Poole beach to be used in the construction of the rock groynes. It was put to one side by a workman who noticed the tree’s grain in this unusual ‘rock.’ A local geologist identified it as a pine tree that would have been growing on Portland when it was on the edge of a freshwater lagoon. The freshwater evaporated and was replaced by salty water which preserved this fallen tree.
I emerge from the gardens by the Canford Cliffs Library. I am a member of the Friends of Canford Cliffs Library. This group meets in the library for coffee every Monday morning. But, due to the coronavirus pandemic we have not met since March – 9 months ago. I notice the distinctive Solo camper van of the members I know quite well parked outside the library. As the library is operating on a collection and return basis only I cannot pop inside to see if she is there. I scribble a seasonal greeting on a scrap of paper and tuck it under the windscreen wiper. I carry on into Canford Cliffs Village to collect my Christmas order.
I had expected my order would be packed up and ready to go but apart from the smoked salmon and the bread nothing else has been done. The mince pies are put in a bag and my ‘complete’ order is placed on the counter in front of me. No Christmas cake. When point this out I am told it has all gone. I express my disappointment having gone to the trouble to order it two days earlier. An assistant goes into the back of the store and re-appears with a small Christmas cake. As she puts it on the counter in front of me she casually mentions she had put it on one side to take home for herself and her family. She says I should have it as the shop made the mistake. As she expected I feel guilty at the thought of depriving a whole family of their Christmas cake. I give it back to her. It is a huge disappointment as I love Christmas cake, especially the almond icing. It was always my job at Christmas to make the almond icing for the family Christmas cake – and then to eat it.
Throughout the day the news is all about Brexit. Early this morning we are told that a Brexit deal could be close. There were suggestions that an announcement could be made as early as this evening as the chief negotiators remained locked in a room in Brussels. Parliament still needs to ratify a deal if one is agreed, but it has already broken up for Christmas. But it has been reported that MPs could be recalled on 30 December to approve any last-minute agreement.
Late in the day it was confirmed that Britain and the European Union (EU) have agreed an historic post-Brexit trade deal, with just days left until the end of the transition period. PM Boris called the agreement a “jumbo Canada-style” allowing Britain to strike deals elsewhere, set its own rules and catch more fish in UK waters. Johnson said it meant “a new stability and a new certainty” in a relationship that had been “fractious” between Britain and the EU, preserving ties and access for hauliers, carmakers, police, scientists, and highly skilled workers. But he admitted the UK had not secured everything it wanted on financial services equivalence, which would help maintain access for the UK finance sector. Full details were not announced at the conference. And the final document confirming the deal, running to around 500 pages, is yet to be published.
Friday 25 December 2020
It is a chilly start to Christmas Day. Nevertheless, when I go out at 7.30 am there is a steady stream of traffic heading for the car parks in Sandbanks. I jog to the beach by the Sandbanks Sea Pavilion and then walk towards the Haven Hotel. It is a glorious sun rise and there are a lot of people and dogs on the beach watching it. Some of the dogs are wearing their Christmas finery. It is such a glorious morning I spend 2 hours strolling on the sand exchanging Christmas greetings with other walkers.
When I get back to the flat I have a coffee and a mince pie. I am doing a survey of mince pies and today I try one from the local bakery. It does not impress and goes to the bottom of my list. To date Tesco’s own brand is top of this list, Mr Kipling’s a close second, Sainsbury’s own a not very close third. For the sake of maintaining my hard-won size 10 the survey is now closed.
By mid-morning sunshine is flooding the flat and I take a break from writing to watch rom-coms on television while playing Spider Solitaire on my laptop. Result, one really bad headache. Cure? Smoked salmon, sour dough bread and a glass of my vino spumante for my Christmas lunch. When I wake up I am delighted to discover that a Queen concert and a film biography of Freddie Mercury are on television this evening. I have a salad and a mug of tea for supper in order to fully appreciate the legend that only became a favourite of mine after his death. I was first inspired to listen to their music after seeing the statue of Freddie Mercury by Lake Geneva. By the time the last note fades away, Christmas Day is over.
A further 570 deaths in the UK were reported on Christmas Day, taking the total by that measure to 70,195. Only five other countries in the world have a higher total of deaths. And the number of infections continues to rise. Tomorrow another 6 million people will move into Tier 4 but there is no guarantee this will be enough to slow the spread of the new variant of COVID-19.
The UK has already approved the use of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, and more than 500,000 people have been given the first dose. The Health Secretary has announced that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine has now submitted full data to the medicines regulator for approval.
Saturday 26 December 2020
Another very cold start to the day which dawns cloudy and grey. Weather warnings are in place as Storm Bella is on its way. According to the scientists the frequency and intensity of storms are worsened by climate change. The development of a storm is usually linked with water vapour. Warmer seas mean more water vapour, increasing the chances of a storm. Due to the coronavirus pandemic environmental issues have had to take a back seat in 2020.Millions more people are now in Tier 4 but Bournemouth and Poole are still in Tier 2. I decide to go for a walk before the weather gets worse. Considering the weather there are a surprising number of people around and a steady stream of cars going both ways. No doubt for many the boundaries between Tiers 2 and 4 are non-existent. I take the path less-followed and walk around the harbour towards the village of Lilliput. A frothing sea crashing against the harbour wall suggests some jokers have poured a gallon of detergent into the water.
When I get to the top of Evening Hill I try to find a way down to the Blue Lagoon, an area of Poole Harbour and home to the Salterns Marina. It takes a while to find my way through the residential roads to this exclusive marina and housing development. When I get there I find a sign for a bridle path but I can’t find the path itself. The marina is deserted and I wander amongst the moored boats and lines of tarpaulin covered jet skis. I am surprised to find a hotel here. The Salterns hotel is temporarily closed and has a desolate air about it. It is a far cry from the days when the site was used as the Flying Boat Headquarters between 1943 and 1948. Then, it was Britain’s only international airport welcoming many famous passengers including Sir Winston Churchill. Its history goes back to the 1700s when salt was made here and later it was linked to pottery making. Today it is a private marina.
Storm Bella moves in this evening and is soon rattling the patio door and spattering the glass with rain. The storm is raging when I go to bed making the doors creak and my clothes on the rack in my bedroom sway. A draught whistles around the pan of the en-suite toilet. I can hear fragments of shells being rolled across the roof above me. The seagulls swoop in and drop their catch on the flat roof to break the shells. I know that in the morning the lawn and parking area will be spotted white with them in the morning. All very creepy.
From today new, tougher restrictions apply in Scotland. Wales and Northern Ireland are back in lockdown. Although Boxing Day sales were expected to plummet amid the pandemic and the closure of non-essential shops in Tier 4 areas there was still an all-night queue outside Harrods in London. People queueing (without masks) were served hot drinks and snacks by butlers (also without masks) and amused by entertainers (of course, no masks).
In the News Today
The coronavirus pandemic has sparked a puppy craze. Dog trainers are overwhelmed with applicants anxious to train their new acquisition and are running extra classes. It seems many people working from home have decided this is the ideal time to get a puppy. People with no interest in dogs have made a sudden decision to get a puppy without realising the time and effort involved. No doubt the next campaign will be – a dog is for life not just a pandemic.
Sunday 27 December 2020
Storm Bella erupts again early this morning. Heavy rain pounds the roof above me and water cascades down our drive. But the flooding on the roads is not much worse than usual when it rains a lot. Other areas are not doing so well and when I switch the radio on there are reports of rivers bursting their banks. As the weather has cleared up by mid-morning the influx of visitors begins. All the parking spaces are taken around the harbour and large groups are strolling along the footpaths. I decide to leave it until 3 pm before going out. I have been sent some innovative long johns to review but I soon discover they are no defence against the bitter cold so I don’t stay out for long. As soon as I start my walk I notice a brilliant moon hanging above the stalks of some bamboo grass growing in a neighbour’s garden. It makes a beautiful picture, very reminiscent of the many lovely paintings of bamboo branches I admired in Japan.
Scientists continue to call for another national lockdown in the UK as cases of the new COVID-19 variant are confirmed in several European countries including France, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. All of them are linked to people who arrived from the UK. They are supported by teaching unions who are demanding that schools remain closed due to growing evidence that the new mutations is proving to be particularly infectious among children.
Pressure is mounting for the medical authorities to announce their approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. The UK has agreed to buy 100 million doses. It is expected the country’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency will give approval “just after Christmas”. Although approval will undoubtedly be a game changer problems of distribution will need to be resolved first and staffing is a primary constraint.
In the News Today
Hundreds of British skiers forced to quarantine in the Swiss resort of Verbier have escaped from their quarters. The holiday-makers were ordered to isolate in their accommodation for 10 days after the UK announced the detection of the rapidly spread mutation of COVID-19. Untouched breakfast trays outside hotel rooms alerted the authorities to the escape of over 400 Britons subjected to the retrospective quarantine. It is believed some of the escapees fled over the border to France. Ski lifts there are closed, due to the country’s coronavirus restrictions, but cross-country tracks are open and skiers are permitted to ski-tour, or hike up the mountain, and ski down. Switzerland has come under heavy criticism for its handling of the pandemic, which has resulted in some of Europe’s fiercest infection rates during the second wave.
Some Government Statistics
By 5 pm on 21 December, a total of 2,073,511 (total today 33,364) positive COVID-19 tests have been recorded and the cumulative total of deaths within 28 days of a positive test is 67,616 including a daily total of 215. Deaths with COVID-19 on the certificate have risen to 76,287 (a weekly statistic) an increase of 3,160. A week later on 27 December, the total of positive cases had risen to 2,288,345 (daily total 30,501) positive tests, and the cumulative total of deaths within 28 days of a positive test is 70,752 including a daily total of 316. Deaths with COVID-19 on the certificate have risen to 79,349 (a weekly statistic) an increase of 3,062.
More next week
Valery Collins is the Experienced Traveller
An excellent raconteur, Valery has been writing about her experiences on the road since she started travelling 25 years ago. After publishing 4 books she turned to online travel writing and photography. Today she is editor, features’ writer and reviewer for ExperiencedTraveller.com and regularly contributes guided city walks to GPSmyCity.com