Friday, 17 July 2020

Testing times

Back in March when, whether we liked it or not, we all stepped into this lockdown journey into the unknown  I said then that it would be August before we were back to normal and it is looking as if my prediction was not far wrong. There are still some spanners in the works and by normal I mean the new normal not the old normal. It has been quite a journey and it is not over yet.

Initially the idea of being at home and maybe getting a few jobs done in the house and garden did not seem to be such a bad idea. It was something of a novelty not to need to be rushing around to go anywhere, as everything gradually got cancelled and I am quite good with my own company. Going out was a bit scary as the road were eerily quiet and we had been given the impression that coronavirus was everywhere - it just couldn’t be seen. The weather here was good. So we had a few walks around the village and spent some time in the garden. I even hoped that maybe this would be the year that we finally got on top of our garden - we have now been her sixteen years. Those hopes were dashed when the local council suspended our green bin garden waste collection. With the tip also closed, where were we to put the garden rubbish? Any excuse to cut services. Soon everyday seemed to be the same. We needed a newspaper to tell us which day of the week it was, as we tried to stick to what was left of our usual routines.

Looking back now, it is easy to see the mistakes that have been made. The UK locked down too late, on the advice of the government scientists who thought that if we locked down too early people would get bored with lockdown and not adhere to the rules. OK people have got bored, but the sooner we locked down, the sooner lockdown could be eased. So thousands went to football matches and horse racing meetings, which were considered not to be an issue as they were outside, but there was a  resulting spike in coronavirus cases. At this point they did not seem to be protecting the NHS and saving lives. Then there is the matter of face masks. The original advice was that they gave very little protection. It was also thought that most people do not know how to wear them and would become cavalier about social distancing. So during the worst of the pandemic masks weren’t worn. Now with the infection and death rate falling dramatically, they are being deemed necessary. People still do not know how to wear them and the reusable ones that have become so popular need to be washed at a very high temperature to remove any bugs that may be on them. How many are doing that? Not many I am sure. I have seen them removed, then screwed up and shoved in a pocket like a dirty handkerchief. They have become a sort of status symbol or a fashion statement. Trump and his henchmen all wearing black face masks look like the Mafia. How soon will it be before a bank is robbed and the robbers can not be described because they are all wearing masks?

Here in the UK, from July 24 we are going to have to wear a mask to go into a shop. Well I am not keen on masks - they make me hot and when I am hot I don’t think straight. So I shall only be going to the supermarket and other essential shops, if I have to wear a face mask. We don’t need to worry about wearing a face mask on public transport, as where we live we are a mile from the nearest bus stop. So we have never used it. Even before lockdown I had got into the habit of buying stuff online and since lockdown I have being buying even more online, as shops were shut and items could not be found in the shops that were open. Returns are simple and buying from the comfort of your own home is much more relaxing than fighting with the crowds or having to queue to get into a shop. Also at the moment clothing can not be tried on in a shop. So if an item is not suitable a return trip is necessary to get a refund, which is more hassle and exposure to other people. Not to mention the time it takes.

Recently I have realised how much of what I buy is made in China, particularly clothes. After the events of this year, initially the gift to the world of the coronavirus pandemic and now its actions against Hong Kong, I have decided not to buy anything which states that it was made in China. If I was ruthless and decided to discard everything made in China right now, I would certainly be left with very few clothes, but the past can not be rewritten, so reluctantly I'll be keeping them, but there will be no new clothes from China.

That brings me to the other thorny subject, which has raised its head while the world has been in lockdown - Black Lives Matter. All that I have to say on that matter is that All Lives Matter. We should not be rewriting history, but should be learning from it.

Not to be forgotten is the hoo-ha of testing for the coronavirus infection and then the antibodies or immunity testing, which seems to have been forgotten about recently as the government try to concentrate on track and trace. A consistently reliable immunity test seems to have become a low priority as the scientists scrabble around to develop a vaccine which works. Little is known about how long immunity lasts or how effective it is in preventing reinfection. Research around immunity and antibodies/antigens seems to be low key. By the time that an effective vaccine is available coronavirus could have died out naturally. Testing the UK population to ascertain who may have coronavirus asymptomatically and where there maybe out breaks of the infection continues. Two or three weeks ago I was invited to participate in a study to measure the prevalence of COVID-19, which was being run by Imperial College London and Ipsos MORI on behalf of the Department of Health & Social Care. The letter that I received said that I had been chosen at random and paticipation was voluntary. I decided to participate as I thought that I had nothing to loose and I that I had had the coronavirus infection some time ago. I was unlikely to yield a positive test and I might even get an immunity test out of it. Well no immunity test so far and my coronavirus test came back as negative. Having to self administer the swab test was exceeding difficult. So I can see why many are not returned. The swab test had too be done by 8 am. I am not a morning person. So set the alarm to get it done. Trying to get a swab all the way back to your tonsils when your mouth is dry and you are half asleep is a conjuring trick. Poking the swab up my nose was not so difficult. If I had to do it again I would do the test the night before or take the risk that the courier would not be on the door step at 8 am to collect it. I waited four days for the result to come through, which if you are ill is a long time. There must be a quicker and easier test.

Now a days nothing happens without broadband and ours has become very slow as a result of so many people working from home. I just wish that they would go back to work where the broadband must be better and faster. So that those of us without a place of work will have better broadband at home.

When and how is all this going to end? Who knows? A crystal ball would be useful. We have one group of scientists predicting a second wave with even more deaths and another suggesting that the UK now has herd immunity - all of those that are going to have coronavirus have had it. I know what I would like to believe.

Monday, 22 June 2020

2020 unsorted

Right now we should be relaxing under the Cretan sun, but instead we are at home in Cheshire where the last few days have been particularly wet and we have been watching it rain stair rods. I know where we would prefer to be. How about you?

So instead of looking out at this view from our hotel towards the harbour at Agios Nikolaos

we have been looking at this view from our French windows.

I am sure that we are not alone in having our plans that we had made for this year, shredded by the coronavirus pandemic.

Over the last 18 months several of our family and friends have been ill and some sadly have died. This has made us realise that we could be next. So at the end of last year we decided that maybe we should have a few more holidays in an attempt to get through our bucket list. We had booked holidays for May, June and August/September, and would have probably booked something last minute for October. We thought that we had 2020 sorted. All of our booked holidays have been cancelled. All of that planning gone to waste.

For the June holiday in Crete we have had a refund and the August/September holiday has been rescheduled for next August. The May holiday, which was to Corfu, we have re-arranged for late September. But will we be going? Right now it is not possible to travel from the UK to Greece for the purpose of a holiday. The UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) advised against all non-essential international travel in March and that is still their advice. As a result of this advice our travel insurance has been suspended - meaning that we cannot book a holiday or travel until the FCO change their advice. Well if we do, we won't be covered by our insurance. Then there is the matter of Greece not allowing visitors from the UK to enter their country or if we are allowed in, we will be tested for coronavirus then be expected to be in quarantine for 14 days whether or not we test positive for coronavirus. And when we get back to the UK there will be another 14 days of quarantine.

Essentials on the holiday packing list in addition to sunscreen and a swim suit will be copious amounts of hand sanitising gel and a supply of face masks. From what I have read, and I know that much of it is speculation, I am wondering how enjoyable the whole experience will be. It will be an experience and maybe the experience of a life time, but will it be something to remember and repeat or forget and never do again?

Until things change this maybe as close as we are going to get to Corfu.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Somewhere under the rainbow

Here in the UK we are now in our seventh week of lockdown. I have watched the progress of the current coronavirus pandemic with the slightly detached view of a retired scientist. Yes, mistakes have been made and it is easy for me to say so, as I sit here in the semi-isolation of rural Cheshire, 200 miles from London. Whatever we might think, we have to live and cope with the situation as it stands. Hindsight is wonderful, but the decisions, made at the time in general, seemed to be the most appropriate for the circumstances and were made to protect our NHS. Initially husband and I watched the daily press briefing from Downing Street, but after a time it started to feel like a summons to the headmaster's office. The announcements were at times grim and every day the journalists, who are not scientists, seemed to ask the same questions.  Not surprisingly the answers were pretty much the same. What has surprised me has been the patience with which the politicians and scientists have answered these questions on a daily basis.

As someone who started their working life in the NHS I cannot help but wonder what it would have been like had there been a pandemic when I was working in hospital pharmacy. It was forty years ago and I was a new qualified pharmacist in my early twenties. I know that a lot has changed in that time. Then we did not have mobile phones, computers or the internet and people did not travel anything like as much as they do today. So maybe a virus would not have spread as fast as coronavirus has. The intensive care unit (ITU), at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford where I worked, probably had no more than than ten beds. Everything in the unit was far less automated than today and what machines there were, were fairly basic. Occasionally I would visit ITU to check their drugs and I have to say that I found it intimidating.  Medicines would have been important, but of the drugs regularly used today, only a handful would have been available forty years ago. Yes, nearly all of the drugs in common use today had not been discovered or developed then. It would have been very much survival of the fittest. Never the less we thought that we were at the cutting edge. The practice of medicine had moved on in leaps and bounds since the NHS had been set up in 1948. I enjoyed the years that I spent working in hospital pharmacy. The atmosphere in the hospitals that I worked in was aways good. You felt that you were part of a team, although sometimes there appeared to be more than one team. And you just would not be working there if you were not prepared for hard work and some sacrifices. At times it was an eye opener as I experienced and saw things that were disturbing and upsetting. Events that doctors and nurses were trained for, but which pharmacists of my generation were not. But I have to say that it was also very rewarding.

Part of me would still like to be working. It is what I was trained to do. Pharmacists who had retired in the last three years were asked to return to work in preparation for coronavirus arriving here. It is eight years since I retired, which counts me out and it is not as if I had not worked through some difficult times. In the Winter of Discontent I was working at St George's Hospital, Hyde Park Corner - now the Lanesborough Hotel. Without going into detail I can tell you that it was grim. During the swine flu epidemic of 2009/10 I was working in retail pharmacy. There was no PPE in those days. Admittedly swine flu was not as virulent as coronavirus. You just had to hope that you did not get it.

Here in the UK, thanks to the planning of the politicians, scientists and doctors, our NHS has not been overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic in the way that hospitals in some countries have been. There has always been spare capacity. Every patient has had a bed and a ventilator, if needed. It may no longer be the envy of the world, as it once was, but it is doing a pretty good job right now.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Easter Eggs

What a find! And on Easter Sunday of all days. But not the chocolate variety.

Two years ago we ventured out into the garden on Easter Sunday after a very wet period of weather. Our garden was sodden from all of the rain, so we could only work on the beds closest to the cottage. I was trying to tidy up this raised bed, working to the left of the nest, which was well hidden. Suddenly there was a great commotion and just imagine my surprise when a duck emerged from the back of the bed. Then we found the nest with the eggs in it. How on earth had we not noticed a duck in this raised bed?  I see it all of the time from the kitchen window. Well she really blended in very well. So well that it was difficult to see her even when we knew she was there. I did remember coming down into the kitchen one exceedingly wet Saturday morning and finding a large male duck on the patio. There is a pond in the farmer's field at the end of our garden. Often there are ducks and moor hens on the pond, but they never come so close to the cottage. Now we knew what he had been up to!

For the next few weeks we watched the nest like a hawk, in the expectation of seeing the duckings emerge. At the same time we were careful not to disturb the duck who was sitting on the eggs for most of the day. To our disappointment we saw not one single duckling. One morning we found an empty nest. The duck and her ducklings had vanished overnight. We left things untouched for a time, in case she returned, but she didn't. I tidied up the raised bed that she had called home and made sure that she would not return by rearranging some of the plants, so that it would not be so comfortable to  make a nest there again. And it has not happened again, despite the incredibly wet winter that we have just had.

Eggs this year will have to be chocolate. Happy Easter!

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Mad as a March hare

Last Monday - March 16 , after the UK Health Secretary's crass announcement on Sunday morning that the over 70s would be expected to self-isolate to protect themselves from Coronavirus, we decided that we had better get ouselves out to do some shopping before even more draconian measures were announced. Our first port of call was the local garden centre. It was quiet -well we don't usually go to the garden centre on a Monday morning. That did not take long. So the next stop was the local Costco for some provisions. As we turned into the access road to Costco the traffic was very heavy. In fact heavier than we had ever seen there. We were soon directed into the car park by marshalls who were directing the traffic. Once in the car park there was really no way out. It was grid locked - not helped by the traffic lights at the end of the access road, which only leads to Costco. We initially thought that we would just go home and come back some other time, but we decided that we might as well go into the store, as strangely parking was not really a problem. However, it was a twenty minute crawl to get into a space.

As we entered the store we were told that they were out of toilet rolls and chicken portions, neither of which were on our shopping list. The tills were busy, but the store itself was reasonably quiet. Everybody seemed to be in the car park. Our aim was to stock up with beer and wine, plus a few other bits and pieces, which we did and by the time we reached the tills the queues had gone. However, the car park was just as bad.

It was another twenty minute crawl to get out of it. By now it was after 12.30 pm and the Jeremy Vine Show was on the car radio. We listened as a succession of indignant seventy somethings complained about the government's instructions to self-isolate. I was aghast at these instructions. My husband was 70 last August. When he hit that milestone, he did not suddenly become a frail, little old man. After weeks of self-isolation I hate to think what state he would be in both mentally and physically. Not to mention my own state of mind! Little did we know that by the end of the day more or less all of us would be in the same boat, as the government introduced restrictions that would affect all of our daily lives.

We realised that we would have to adapt to a different way of life within the restrictions. We watched the Prime Minister's daily briefings and the television news with interest and some trepidation as we heard about selfish individuals panic buying and striping the supermarket shelves bare. So I suppose that husband and I should not have been surprised by what we found, when we went to out local Tesco to do our weekly supermarket shop. The car park was only partly full as usual and there was no queue to get into the store, but once inside it looked like a bomb had hit it with empty aisles and bare shelves. There was a board listing the restricted items. I had a quick look at it and thought we would be alright to buy what we wanted, as there were two of us. Shopping completed we headed to a queueless till, where we were soon informed that we could only have three fruit, three vegetables and one loaf of bread. Of the six vegetables in our trolley which did I want and which one of the two different loaves of bread did I want? I protested that there were two of us, but to the cashier we were one customer and that was that. So to you Tesco, a black mark for allowing customers to panic buy to the point were there was simply almost nothing left for those of us who had stayed at home and obeyed the goverment's instructions. We were horrified. We usually shop once a week and we had only been allowed to buy enough fresh food for two to three days, which would mean shopping two to three times a week instead of once. All when we were supposed to be reducing social contact. This meant playing the supermarkets at their own game. There is a big ASDA about half a mile away, which we had never shopped in, but there is a first time for everything. We took two shopping baskets and split our shop between them, then went through the self service check outs. Success and relief and enough food to last seven days. In the following days I spent a lot of time wondering how to manage this week's shop, if it was going to be as challenging as last weeks had been. On Wednesday I went to the local Sainsburys and was pleasantly surprised to find a quiet and much better stocked store than I had anticipated. Hopefully some of the madness is over. Soon March will be too.

Perhaps I should add that over the last few weeks I had built up our stock of food, especially the freezer, but fresh fruit and vegetables and other perishable items need to be bought regularly.

Saturday, 29 February 2020

More or less accommodating

When we were not at the airport on our recent trip to South Africa we were staying in a variety of different types of accommodation while travelling along the Garden Route in a hired car.

Our first taste of South African accommodation was in Cape Town, where we stayed in the same hotel that we had stayed in three years ago. Then we were very impressed. This time we were not. Everything had gone downhill. When husband had booked it he had advised the hotel of the time that we would be arriving. Given that we were from the UK they should have realised that we would probably have travelled overnight and would be tired. However, our room was not ready. They offered us a complimentary coffee, but I was so tired and annoyed I almost burst into tears. When we eventually got to the room it was nowhere near as good as the room we had had on our previous stay, despite booking the same category of room. Two days later we had to move room because of strange noises that were waking us up. We will not be going back there again.

From Cape Town we moved on to Hermanus, a fishing village on the coast, which is popular with whale watchers in the South African winter time. We were not going to see whales, but thought that we would have a look at the place. Hermanus is small with not a lot of accommodation to choose from. Here our choice of hotel was excellent, if expensive. It was the sort of place that we would like to go back to, but I can not see that we will ever go back to Hermanus.

Next stop Franschhoek in the Cape Winelands. This hotel was nothing like I thought that it was going to be based on the impression I had got from its' website. Our room appeared to be a cars' drive from the reception until we found that there was a shorter route on foot. The  room that we were shown to was dark and there was a dripping noise. The air conditioning unit was leaking. The porter thought that this could be fixed by switching off the unit and phoning housekeeping for towels to mop up the water. When a girl from housekeeping arrived with towels she took one look at things and phoned maintenance. While this was going on I was muttering to husband that we were not going to stay in this room and they would have to find us another one. The outside temperature was thirty something Centigrade. We were going to need functioning air conditioning. Maintenance swiftly arrived and said that another room would be found for us, but before that happened they removed the casing from the air conditioning unit and a bucket full of water poured out of it. So we were moved two rooms along to room which was larger and much nicer. All appeared to be well until about 1.30 the next morning when I was woken up by what I though was an animal making a noise. The noise continued for about half an hour and I eventually realised that it was a baby crying - in the adjacent room. Eventually I managed to get back to sleep only to be woken again by this crying baby, which prompted another room move later that day.

The following few nights were to be spent in smaller accommodation. Initially at Swellendam, where we stayed in a boutique hotel and luxury country guest house. Our bathroom was enormous with two showers and twin wash basins along with the usual bathroom equipment. The bedroom which was a good size was dominated by the bed with surplus cushions, a faux fur throw

and a blanket all on top of a duvet. Most nights we ended up sleeping under just the duvet cover. The duvet having been removed from it. We had a comfortable night there, once we had sorted out the bed clothes.

Then it was on to a country lodge outside Oudtshoorn, that we had stayed in on our previous visit and been impressed. In the mean time it had changed owners and sadly had gone downhill. The less said about it the better.

Now for a rather grand sounding country house hotel beside Knysna Lagoon, which was pictured in my Wish you were here post. When we arrived here the power was off as a result of the previous night's heavy rain and an almighty thunderstorm was just getting underway. We had a spacious room overlooking the grey lagoon and our only complaint was with the wet weather.

Our final stop along the Garden Route was at Port Elizabeth, where we stayed in an hotel belonging to the same group as owned the hotel in Cape Town. Here we had noisy neighbours in the adjacent room and the hotel seemed to be large, impersonal, rather sad and basically disappointing.

Now for something entirely different. We were off to Zambia. Our hotel was next to the Victoria Falls. It was adequate. The rooms were small and gaudy. When we arrived the swimming pool had no water in it and the area around it looked like a building site. Even husband admitted that we should have stayed at the more expensive hotel next door whose facilities we were allowed to use.

After two nights we were back in South Africa - this time in Johannesburg for one night. The hotel was nicely decorated and furnished. However, we were thrown by the wash basin taps in the bathroom. The cold was labelled hot and the hot labelled cold! And in the bedroom light came round the edges of the black out curtains. It actually was not a problem, but it could have been.

Finally we got to spend six nights in the same hotel. For us this was to be R&R before we flew home. Night one was alright. Night two was not. The air conditioning, which we prefer to be off when we are sleeping, switched itself on at 2.00 am and decided to switch itself off some time around 5.00 am. So I expect you have guessed - another room move was looming. We explained the night's events to the guy on reception, who swiftly offered us another room and an upgrade and a late check out on our day of departure, if we wanted it. He said that the problem was caused by the balcony door not closing properly. I think that they knew that there was a problem with that room and took the chance that we would not notice it.

By the end of the trip we had got used to adapting to whatever perculiarities that night's accommodation offered us. It was good to get back home. There is nothing like your own bed.