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Corona Diaries: Getting Tested in the UK

Europe is now the centre of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we’re facing the most significant public health crisis for a generation. So far, there have been 35 deaths in the UK with an estimated 10,000 or more people infected. Since coming to stay a few weeks ago, my mum has been ill. A few days ago, she was up all night with a temperature, hot skin, shoulder pain, a dry cough. “It’s not your average cold,” she said. “It feels slightly alien to anything I am used to. I’ve had a persistent headache for weeks, and my tinnitus is going through the roof”. Concerned that she might have coronavirus, she called the NHS 111 helpline.

Because of her age, pre-existing health conditions (she has CLL and a heart murmur), she was told to go to A&E immediately, so my brother cancelled a couple of jobs to drive her over. When they got there at 7 am, “it was eerie, totally deserted. Just rows of empty chairs.” Not what you’d expect to see in an ordinarily busy A&E. A nurse checked her over and told her she has an ‘upper respiratory tract infection’. 

“I said “look, could this be coronavirus? She said, ‘well, it could be – I can’t say it’s not, but it’s probably just a severe cold.’

“I said, ‘well, don’t you do any tests?’ she said ‘no’. She said ‘we just tell you to self-isolate now.’ Worryingly, the nurse hadn’t heard of her health condition either. My mother had to spell it out and explain what it is (a type of cancer that affects the white blood cells). She didn’t have a temperature as she’d been taking paracetamol, so didn’t meet the ‘criteria for testing’, which is ridiculous given she was sent to A&E in the first place. She told to self-isolate for seven days and to call 111 again if her symptoms didn’t improve and tell them she might have the virus.

So, my mum’s left in limbo. “I’m waiting: is it going to get better, is it going to get worse?”. My mum is in the vulnerable group and has a right to be tested for coronavirus – as do we all. The government promised an additional 10,000 tests a couple of days ago, so, it’s frustrating to see the U-turn from testing everyone to ‘high-risk groups’ only, i.e. in hospital with breathing problems. After we’d spoken, I called the A&E department to find out what’s going on but was told they couldn’t answer questions about coronavirus testing and that I had to call 111 for further information. I did and was kept on hold for half an hour and eventually gave up. If this is my experience of calling 111, it will be many other people’s too.

I called the local press to tell them about my mum’s experience. The Nottingham Post interviewed us. I spoke to BBC Radio Nottingham this morning about the importance of mass testing. People are being advised NOT to go to their local GP or pharmacy if they have any symptoms of the virus, and to call 111 instead. But what are you supposed to do if you can’t get through? Or in my mum’s case if you’re sent to hospital, not tested and told to self-isolate for a week? If the government is going to announce virus isolation for the over-70s for up to four months, there needs to be a proper plan of action and more funding for social care. Who will visit them and bring supplies if they live alone? My mother doesn’t do online shopping and banking. “No way would I be imprisoned in my own home for four bloody months staring at the walls waiting for Deliveroo to drop off a food parcel outside. People who live alone will commit suicide without the physical or mental benefit of going for daily walks or to shops and the library.”

The UK’s strategy is to delay the peak of the virus or “squash this sombrero” as Boris so eloquently puts it so that we don’t overwhelm the NHS (years of Tory cuts and austerity have run it down to the ground, so you reap what you sow). The idea of letting 60% of the population contract the virus to develop “herd immunity” to protect the most vulnerable is reckless. This means potentially 36 million people will need to be infected with the virus, with around 2 million seriously ill and 330 people requiring a critical care bed. It would cripple the NHS and could lead to thousands of deaths. Also worrying to hear from a contact working in the NHS that they have been buying lots of body bags… are we anticipating a large number of deaths?!

200 scientists have written an open letter to the government asking for stricter measures. They say the current proposals are “insufficient” and “additional and more restrictive measures,” i.e. social distancing should be taken immediately as has happened in other countries. We seem to be the only country in Europe following a “laissez-faire” attitude towards coronavirus, with our “keep calm and carry on” approach. South Korea’s approach is “being open, transparent, and keeping people informed,” says their foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha. They are testing 20,000 people a day and monitoring them afterwards via an app. Their goal is to detect it early to prevent spreading, and so far, it seems to be working. Their view is that mass testing is vital so they know how many people have been infected to tailor medical care and monitor them in the future.

Good to see that Democrat Katie Porter has succeeded in getting the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention chief to agree to free coronavirus testing for all Americans. UK government take note!

Labour MP Lisa Nandy is calling for a Public Health England (PHE) information campaign, “not just a gif telling us to ‘wash our hands'”. The government is due to publish its scientific modelling this Thursday, and as of today, there will be daily press briefings.

It has now become a political issue says Robert Colville in The Sunday Times: Delayers v Containers: the new political divide. It’s worrying to hear medical experts arguing about the best approach to tackle the pandemic. I agree with former PM Gordon Brown who says we need to work together to tackle this rather than being nationalistic. Get heads together to come up with a vaccine, pronto!

My mother would be happy to pay for a private test. “I have a right to know whether I’ve had it for my medical history and peace of mind. It affects how I live my life going forward. If I’ve had it, then I have some immunity, so I’ll feel less anxious about going out. If I haven’t, then I know I need to be careful and take precautions.” I agree. My daughter and I have been ill recently, and I have rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic health condition which means my immune system is compromised so I also need to know. I saw my consultant last week who advised me to stay home. So, what are the options if you can’t get tested on the NHS?

This Harley Street clinic is offering private coronavirus testing for £375 after being inundated by people wanting to be tested. Channel 4 News reported that a rapid self-testing kit is set for UK release this week (they’ve already sent 50,000 to South Korea). But if you’re not supposed to go the pharmacy if you have any symptoms, how do you get it? Can you order it online and how much does it cost?

I went for a walk to Bexhill yesterday, which was surreal. You can feel the fear and anxiety. People are apprehensive about what’s going to happen over the coming weeks as the virus peaks here. People are giving each other a wide berth and there’s not much eye contact. My daughter saw a whole family wearing masks at the station. Most of the conversations are about coronavirus.

“The only way we can stop it is to not visit her.”

“Did you see the shops in Eastbourne? Totally empty. It’s like a ghost town.”

The M&S Café in Bexhill was deserted (it’s normally packed with older folk having tea). All the makeup and perfume tester kits have been removed from the shelves which makes sense, but it looks so strange and impersonal. There was no loo roll or pasta in my local ASDA as people panic-buy. Don’t do it! There’s enough for everyone – think about the people who can’t afford to panic buy.  

This is a war on a virus, and it brings out the best and worst in people. It’s upsetting to hear about racism against the Chinese and Italians. Fewer visits to Chinese takeaways. Last week a boy in my daughter’s class said: “Are we making pizza because it’s Italian and they have coronavirus?” The teacher put him straight.

But also great to see people pulling together. I love little drawings by Italian kids under quarantine, hashtag #TuttoAndraBene, #EverythingsGonnaBeOkay? And these videos of Italians singing to their neighbours – this Turin opera singer gave hers a treat. In the UK, we have postcard campaigns to encourage people to check in on their elderly neighbours, #ViralKindness #HowCanIHelp. It shouldn’t take a national crisis for this to happen but here we are.

#AndraTuttoBene #EverythingWillBeOkay

We may be spending a lot of time at home over the coming months, so it’s an opportunity to slow down, think about how we live, and make some changes. Do we need to travel so much and buy more stuff? We can shop local, work from home if possible, and do more in our communities. I’m keeping a corona diary. I really hope this is the beginning of a new way of living with more tolerance and time for each other and more cohesive leadership. We need better international cooperation with governments around the world working together to solve problems and create change.

I’ll let you know if we manage to get hold of a self-testing kit and what the outcome is. I’d be interested to hear your experiences too – email me on nicci@niccitalbot.com.

  • Staying Home Club – the running list of what in tech has been affected by COVID-19 and what social distancing policies have been enacted by 238 companies
  • Last month, China rolled out an app for people to test if they’ve been in ‘close contact’ with people exposed to the coronavirus. It shares data with the police. (this is in the pipeline for the UK although if its success depends on widespread testing I can’t see how can it work here) 

Send her your feedback so she can put together a dossier for the government on self-employment and coronavirus: Tracy.brabin.mp@parliament.uk

  • Labour MP Lisa Nandy on how to campaign during a pandemic. She says we should be using video conferencing to carry on the Brexit negotiations. Her team have launched an app for her leadership campaign, which has been adapted for the coronavirus with virtual Q&As. “The Nandwagon will continue to roll on. We have three weeks,” she told Andrew Marr 
  • Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now. A fascinating article by Tomas Pueyo, which has been widely shared online. I’m not sure about his scientific credentials – he’s a Silicon Valley tech executive, but it’s interesting data, and he’s a passionate speaker. Watch the debate on the Channel 4 News coronavirus special
  • Who Gives a Crap? Eco-friendly toilet roll delivered to your door… they’ve been completely wiped out – back in stock soon

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Clear messaging (& tone of voice) is crucial at all times – not just during coronavirus!

If you need a little help with your marketing activity in the coming weeks – get in touch today. Nicci@niccitalbot.com.