I’m ‘Charlie’, a public sector worker in my 40s, originally from Wales but living in England. My parents were living in Wales during Covid wave one. This is a selection of my memories from that time.
The first lockdown, the aftermath, and the joyous bit when we thought we’d beaten it, until cases started increasing again at the end of August 2020. Little did I know then what would happen after that.
Back to the beginning
People in China were getting an illness, a few sadly dying. We’d seen it before – MERS, SARS, they never make it over here. I assumed it was because of Lunar New Year. Shows what I know. Suddenly it was in Italy too, and looking bad, hospitals overwhelmed. Then it was here.
Some people were isolated in Birkenhead, the poor coach driver took them with no PPE. Nothing much else happened for a while. A few cases, jokes in work about having a few weeks off. Then the first death. Suddenly, it was happening.
Who could you trust? I felt as well as I ever did. But they said you could have it and not know. Hand sanitiser appeared. Someone’s daughter’s friend got it. We were corralled in the staff room while they deep-cleaned the offices. Fire doors were propped open for air circulation. But there was no lockdown, and I thought this was good – we’re managing it better than other countries.
March: Six Nations, Cheltenham races, and numbers keep going up. My partner’s family were in Yorkshire and fairly healthy; mine were in Glamorgan – around 300 miles away – and not in good health. We visited Wales every few weeks. On one of those trips in mid-March things were obviously getting bad, places starting to close. The services on our return were empty. One man in the shop, one in Burger King in full PPE. Takeaway only, you couldn’t sit down anywhere.
Back home, pubs and restaurants were shut so we bought an M&S ready meal for my birthday tea. And that night came the announcement by Boris Johnson. Stay At Home.
Food and medicine
The big fear at first was supermarkets being empty. I went one afternoon, thinking to stock up on a week’s worth. Nothing fresh there, no loo roll. A few tins; I got Thomas the Tank Engine spaghetti. A few ready meals that could be frozen. We have a farm shop in the village so I thought I’d be able to get potatoes and carrots if nothing else.
Takeaways were shut, but we found one in the next town who’d deliver and used them a few times a week. It helped them keep staff on, and meant we didn’t go through supplies as fast. There were shortages, but never nothing. You had to be a bit flexible, but we weren’t on a tight budget. I worried for those who were struggling.
Then suddenly the supermarkets got click and collect sorted. There was no delivery for love nor money, but this had the advantage that orders were picked overnight as deliveries came in. We did this all the way through wave one.
Medicines were more of a problem. I put an order into the doctor for all repeat medications immediately, but everything was overwhelmed. The pharmacy was always slow, but then it took days and days. I didn’t run out but it was a close thing. I worry about how we’d cope now, as we’re on more medications, and the pharmacy seems permanently short-staffed.
Wave one work
We got nervous, not sitting closely together at lunch. Some had sanitiser clipped to their door entry cards. Although we now know that Covid’s airborne, it made people feel better. The call came: I’d been identified as high risk and was being sent home immediately. It was October 2021 before I saw my office again, except for short visits. A week later I was redeployed and the office closed for everyone anyway.
My team was disbanded and we worked with another team, taking easy cases to free up more experienced staff to work with those really needing help. It was challenging. I didn’t know the work properly, worried about mistakes, did my best. I’m used to dealing with angry people, but it was exhausting. We just kept going. Managers pushed us to take holidays, but what was the point? Unless you wanted to paint your house or do the garden, you might as well work.
If I could’ve gone to Wales to check on my parents, I’d have happily taken leave. But even for a compassionate reason, it wasn’t possible. Classic 70-somethings, they didn’t have smartphones, could barely use basic mobiles, so no hope of video calls. From past experience I knew it was easy for them to lie on the phone and say “everything’s fine” when it wasn’t.
At least there were friendly colleagues on the phone. We had quizzes and yoga classes online, and there was a Facebook group. Most top management had 12-hour days Monday to Friday and worked weekends. So it wasn’t them and us – if anything they worked harder. We took on extra staff, mainly those who’d left but couldn’t get furlough, or recent retirees, to conduct telephone welfare checks on the vulnerable.
Family in Wales
My mum was in care in Glamorgan in wave one, nearly a day’s drive away. It was a good home, but we were so worried. She was very frail and kept getting infections. A few weeks in came the dreaded phrase, “My dinner was awful and I couldn’t taste it.” She tested positive and was admitted to hospital.
We figured there was no chance of recovery. She was too weak to hold a phone, but nursing staff kept in touch. No chance of a compassionate visit unless she was clearly dying, and it was questionable that we’d make it anyway. Contrary to expectations, she did return to the care home, but all her energy was gone. It was horrible not being able to visit, rarely being able to speak to her, but the home updated us. At the end of wave one she was still alive, albeit very weak.
Dad was in hospital in the Rhondda. He was admitted a few days before Christmas 2019, with various issues mainly to do with infections. Slow recovery meant he lost his mobility. He hoped to return home to Glamorgan, and we finally got him into rehabilitation, albeit a different home to Mum. Again, he was well looked after, but it was horrible not seeing him. He was in isolation much of the time due to infections, had TV and a phone but not much else.
He never got the physio he was supposed to, to get him moving again. As time went by you could hear his morale getting worse. At the end of wave one he was no nearer to going home, and losing hope though in reasonable health. We were lucky my partner’s parents weren’t ill during that time; far from a given as her dad was 80.
Anxiety was a constant presence, we were effectively scared into compliance. The news channel treated UK briefings as the briefings, there was little from other nations. A charismatic chap from Scotland came on quite a lot. Mark Drakeford occasionally, in front of the huge slab of stone. I never heard Vaughan Gething speak, though he was sometimes quoted in summaries. Northern Ireland? No idea.
I suppose scaring people was necessary, but terribly unsettling, particularly in the early stages of wave one. So little was known. Would they manage to keep food and medicine and so on going? How long would it last? It was three weeks initially, but surely they knew this’d be longer – it didn’t seem likely it could be brought under control quickly.
Did they know it was airborne, and we’d little hope of containing it? The evidence tends to support this. Did they do enough, was there more that could be done? Questions that have tortured me on sleepless nights for over three years.
UK briefings became a big part of life. We’d put the TV on a few minutes before, one of us would keep an ear out, and shout as it started. I work with numbers, so statistical elements were of major interest, particularly once case rates peaked. I used decay analysis to try and calculate when we might get out! Unlikely stars, Whitty and Van Tam: I was glad people of their capabilities were in charge.
The four UK governments were led by different parties, and none noticeably outperformed the others. But it got so confusing, with differing restrictions between them. I remember staying up until midnight awaiting a Welsh Government announcement as to whether we could visit – I hadn’t seen my parents for months. England had allowed self-contained accommodation but Wales hadn’t.
One of the most frustrating aspects was that people just seemed interested in how much they could get away with, after the initial panic phase. There was much-reduced foot traffic, so it was really noticeable when you saw the same people three or four times a day, when we were only supposed to go out once.
It got much worse when people could meet in small groups outside. There was seemingly one in every neighbourhood who’d stretch everything to the limit. When the ‘rule of six’ was in force, one neighbour had a party with about 15 people. It lasted two days, the noise was horrendous, cars everywhere; they didn’t even try to hide it. It was frustrating to be doing extra work dealing with the truly desperate while shutting windows to drown out furloughed neighbours’ noise. I’d have been delighted to get 80% for doing nothing, rather than 100% for doing 50% more.
I was tempted to report them, but knew I might live next to them for years. Meanwhile I was having to restrain myself from taking off to Wales, and missed the peace I find at the seaside from watching the waves. I’m not a suburban animal, really.
How things were handled improved once we were through the initial doom phase, but worsened by summer as lockdown eased and different places had different rules. We were caught out by poor planning at first, but planning for easing lockdown seemed equally random and poor.
Easing wave one lockdown
We thought it’d never end, then suddenly it did.
I went to a café when day trips were allowed again. They set a table across the entrance to take orders, with chocolate bars and cakes on it. I was mightily told off for picking up a wrapped cake slice to check the ingredients. I bought it to appease them. It was so strange seeing so many people, so much movement, all outdoors.
A few weeks later when self-contained accommodation was allowed, we booked a holiday quite a long way away. This was when you could eat inside if you filled in the track-and-trace, but we weren’t risking being forced to isolate in holiday accommodation, so carried on eating in the car.
There wasn’t much open or to do, but it was just so nice to see different scenes in a part of the country we’d never been to. I found a two-night stopover on our way home to make it last longer. It felt like we’d left a war zone. I hadn’t realised how ill the stress was making me until then.
By August it looked like we were winning, barely – talk of a second wave, work on vaccines but no success yet. But there was hope. Little did I know that I’d lose two family members, catch Covid, and undergo a second lockdown that made the first look like a weekend break.
If you are in or of Wales, were bereaved by Covid, and need support and information, you can join the private group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru.