Ahead of the annual pilgrimage to our country of birth, my family and I have to undertake a new set of rituals. The country formerly known as Great Britain has (belatedly) introduced a set of requirements to keep the COVID-19 virus at bay.
Day minus 1
Having rung around the various providers that have sprung up, we have identified a local and not too outrageously priced test provider who deliver a test result in English.
The test provider has set up shop in a hair stylist’s premises, with bottles of conditioner and lacquer flanking a wall-mounted mirror. Two young people write down our details, swab our noses and take our fee.
I ask what happens if the test result is not accepted by the UK border authorities.
“That’s never gonna happen!” answers the young woman cheerily as she swipes my credit card. There’s a distinct sense of hay being made while the sun shines.
Our family includes one child and various adults and we wonder which combination of people will travel if one of us gets a positive test result.
In the evening the email arrives to inform us that we have all ‘tested NEGATIVE for SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) with a RT-PCR nucleic acid test.’
Phew! Nobody has to stay behind.
Travelling by plane for the first time in a year is routine and familiar, apart from the face-masks and extra paperwork.
The airline checks our PCR test results prior to boarding.
On the plane passengers have not been spaced out, so some rows of seats are fully occupied, with strangers shoulder-to-shoulder, and empty rows elsewhere.
Passport control at Heathrow examines our passenger locator forms and negative test results as well as evidence that we have booked two more PCR tests for days 2 and 8 of our quarantine.
Although we are required to quarantine for 10 days, we are permitted to travel to our quarantine address by public transport. There are long delays on the train journey. Britain feels a bit broken.
Hurray! Our supermarket food delivery arrives.
We get the first test-and-trace phone call to check that we are quarantining appropriately and have purchased self-test kits. They want to know whether our kits are from the NHS or a private provider. I wonder why? The callers stick to their set script. Each of us gets called separately, although we all arrived at the same quarantine address at the same time.
I ask how often we’ll get called. “Every day, because we want to check that you’re OK”, comes the disingenuous answer.
The test-and-trace callers remind us that we must self-test today.
Swipe tonsils and noses with a small plastic brush. Stop gagging and insert the brush into a vial of pink liquid. Through watering eyes, enclose the vial into a plastic bio-material pouch, attaching the correct identification number. Register the identification number online. Put the pouch into a cardboard box, and in turn into a plastic envelope addressed to a diagnostics firm in Halifax.
To put the testing packages into the post, I have to leave the quarantine address, don’t I?
One local post box has a letter slot too small to fit the packages.
I hear kids shouting in the background of today’s track-and-trace call. Yes, the caller confirms that she’s working from home. She’s never met any of her track-and-trace colleagues face-to-face because, of course, they were all trained online too.
Each track-and-trace call comes from a different person. But the script is unchanging. My caller tells me that he can do the spiel without reading his screen, since he says the same words at least 100 times per day.
Each caller reminds us that we could be visited to ensure that we are quarantining properly. This seems unlikely given our rural location. More of a threat is local dog-walkers who might notice us leaving our premises: effective, old fashioned neighbourly surveillance.
The track-and-trace calls come between 12 noon and 3pm. And we’re not all called everyday: the pattern of who gets called seems random. The uncertainty of waiting for a call that might not come is unnerving.
We are called on our landline – the mobile network is poor round here. What if we’d given our mobile numbers and the calls couldn’t get through? Would that have triggered a visit?
Much more unnerving than the calls is that there are no supermarket food delivery slots available tomorrow! Food is an important focus of the quarantine day. We haven’t yet got our food orders right and have been eating novel combinations of food: black tea, hummus and potatoes for breakfast.
An email result comes to report that the SARS-CoV-2 RT qPCR tests that we sent off are all ‘NEGATIVE for SARS-CoV-2’.
Today’s caller is almost impossible to understand, even though his script is familiar to me by now. His spoken words bleed into each other, so I hardly know when to give the required ‘Yes!’
I can’t face hearing the script again, so tell the caller (truthfully) that I’m in the middle of a Zoom call. “No problem!” comes the cheery response, as though she too is relieved to dodge the repetition.
A paper accepted by Sociology of Health and Illness on depressive symptoms during pandemic-enforced lock-down (which should appear here soon). My mood much boosted by this news! Delighted congratulations exchanged with co-authors Marco and Linda, neither of whom I have met in real life.
Tonsil and nose swipe achieved.
At least I know which local post box to visit (quickly). I don’t encounter any dog walkers.
We’ve now received food deliveries from four different supermarket chains. Croissants, saltless butter and posh jam for breakfast tomorrow!
“Are you paid by number of calls you manage per day?” I ask today’s track-and-trace caller. Since he says that he’s on a salary, irrespective of the number of calls, I ask him how he’s enjoying the work. Not much, it seems. “I reckon I can keep going for about another month,” he says gloomily.
Final phone track-and-trace calls.
If we haven’t yet got a negative test result from the Day 8 test, then we should quarantine until Day 14.
While we are released from staying in audio-range of the landline, the track-and-trace callers are still repeating their scripts to new arrivals to these shores. Pandemic-era job creation on plague island.