Thank goodness we live on an island. | ARCHIVO


This is just the beginning, I muttered to myself as I woke up coughing in the spare bedroom, to which I have been consigned in reluctant self-isolation.

I protest that I get this cough every year and admit that sometimes it mutates into bronchitis or even into pneumonia on a couple of occasions. But I insist (fingers crossed) that it has nothing to do with coronavirus – a self-diagnosis apparently confirmed by the fact that my temperature is a normal 36.3.

We are all becoming hypochondriacs in the current pandemic – and no wonder, with 10,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of reported cases world-wide. Italy has even overtaken China in the number of deaths – if the figures from China can be relied upon.

Britain has had over 150 deaths so far, but I distinctly heard one of those wise doctors say on television that 20,000 deaths would be “acceptable” (as opposed to the 260,000 UK deaths earlier predicted in a worst-case scenario).

Yet Boris Johnson thinks (or least says) that the disease should have peaked in the UK within 12 weeks, which seems unlikely. Although he and the wise doctors look calm and in control, one can’t help thinking that they should have moved earlier and more decisively to close shops, restaurants and big events.

What naturally concerns an old codger like me – over 80 with a lung condition – is the attitude being taken to the aged during this crisis, especially in Italy, where in Lombardy doctors have ceased treating anyone over 75 in order to save the lives of younger folk.

This Orwellian nightmare could well be repeated elsewhere if the figures continue to rise unstoppably, as they still are in Spain (though mercifully not, or not yet, in the Balearics.) Thank goodness we live on an island.

What puzzles me is that there were 26,000 deaths from flu in Britain in 2018 and 1,500 people die there of respiratory disease every week. Although we hear about massive overcrowding in the National Health Service every winter, and a chronic shortage of beds, those figures caused nothing like the hysteria surrounding the current outbreak.
There was a timely report out this week - charmingly entitled “Doddering But Dear?” - saying that old people are “mocked, patronised, and demonised” and treated as “incompetent, hostile or a burden, the ultimate insult.” A spokesman called for a shift in attitudes to remove this “ingrained culture of pity, dislike and dissociation which undermines old people’s participation in society”.

For someone like me, with a young family and comfortable house full of books and a large garden, self-isolation is less of a problem than it is for those poor people who are trapped on their own in a tiny flat. That must be a form of hell. With the closing of schools, however, attention has shifted to young people and how adults can cope with them during the coming indeterminate period of so-called “learning at home.” As I forecast last week, our five-year-old daughter has adapted more readily to this new way of working than our nine-year-old son, who is finally becoming more acquiescent after a few days of shouting and running away to hide.

Children’s initial attitude to being at home is that it is like a long weekend in which they can watch television, play on an I-pad or go out and ride their bikes. Changing that attitude has been a stressful process for my wife, who has also had to rise to the difficult challenge of tracing Education City, Google Classroom, Google Meet, Google Hang-Out, Zoom and other unfamiliar websites.

How parents who have to work are coping with these new demands I can’t imagine. Many of them must be eager to earn some money while they can. It is, of course, just as stressful for teachers, who have to prepare tests and worksheets and then mark them – and may have children of their own to look after at the same time.

It is hard to believe that this system, forcing parents with young children to become the teachers they are not trained to be, can go on indefinitely. Nonetheless, I will be surprised if the schools reopen after Easter and one doctor has forecast that they will stay closed until September. I can see why the British were reluctant to close schools, knowing that children were less susceptible to the virus and that sending them home would create child-care problems for parents who work in hospitals and other essential jobs – especially when grandparents are ruled out as carers for health reasons. About half of doctors and nurses in the UK have children.

Keeping children of school age at home for a long period is bound to create new problems in the relationships of parents and children, especially if the parents want to work or get on with other activities. I expect to see many plaintive articles on the lifestyle pages of newspapers in the coming months.

Had I been put in isolation in other circumstances, I would have relished the chance to watch rugby and cricket on television and the occasional football match if Manchester United were playing. We may never know now if they would have reached the top four in the Premiership and qualified for Europe.

It is going to be a strange world for me in which there is no sport to follow and argue about. Compared, however, with the life-and-death-problems of countless others in the time ahead, this must rate as a minor deprivation.

As I said ruefully when I woke up this morning, this is just the beginning.


Roy Hudd, who died this week, was a genial comic actor and a much-loved man. He had an obsession about the old music hall, collecting items of memorabilia and writing a lovely illustrated book about it.

My late father shared this obsession with the music hall and my childhood was filled with stories about Rob Wilton, George Robey and other entertainers of that inter-war generation. He used to write to Roy Hudd about them. Hudd replied: “You are lucky. I only get to write about these people. You actually saw them.”

My father once went to a retro Edwardian music hall evening in Birmingham and found he was the only member of the audience who had dressed up for the occasion. When he was asked how he felt about this, he replied: “I can’t help it if other people don’t know how to behave.”