Long Reads

Coronavirus: this is the reality of being forced to self-isolate in the UK

In his first daily briefing about the coronavirus pandemic, Boris Johnson has said that people with symptoms of the virus, and anyone they live with, must self-isolate for 14 days. But what is it really like to spend an extended amount of time in your own company? Stylist’s editor-in-chief, Lisa Smosarski, spent over a week self-isolating – and it wasn’t exactly how she’d imagined it…

Last week I spent 8.5 days in self-isolation. That’s 204 hours (almost) on my own which it turns out was not quite the idyll I’d imagined.

Like many busy people, I’d genuinely thought that 14 days of self-isolation sounded, well, quite nice really. Imagine the sleep I could catch up on, the decluttering I could achieve, the box sets I could binge on. I might even get round to printing off – and framing – all those photos I’ve been talking about for the past 10 years. A fortnight of enforced time at home would be permission to get my house well and truly in order. But the reality was somewhat bleaker.

I’d been in Milan during fashion week and traveled back just as Italy’s quarantine took hold. To be honest, I wasn’t too worried, even when two days later I got a cold. But as the headlines ramped up about conditions in Italy my colleagues were concerned, so I decided to work from home and called 111, who came back quickly and told me that with no cough or fever I was fine to carry on as normal.

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So back to work I went, tissue in hand, and comforted myself that I – like the rest of my industry – always got some sort of fashion flu around this time of the year: a normal result of lots of travel and long days and weeks.

Three days later I woke up, still feeling quite ropey, and headed off to a meeting. As I sat speaking I felt a familiar tickle at the back of my throat and tried to swallow it down. I didn’t want to believe that I now had a cough – an official symptom would mean instant isolation. But I didn’t want to be the Stylist super spreader so I admitted defeat and once again left work and headed for home.

Coronavirus: "I called 111 and was given strict instructions to self-isolate."

The journey back was miserable. Sat shivering on the bus I realised I was feeling anything but OK. I stumbled through the door and called 111. After 30 minutes on hold, they referred me to the coronavirus team – the combination of the cough, fever and Milan trip now triggering a response – and told me to expect a call back but to ring back if anything changed. They gave me strict instructions to self-isolate. 

What did that mean exactly? Taking myself to one room in my house, shutting the door, and ensuring I came into contact with no one else. Considering I live with my husband and three children – one aged three and not hugely well versed in following instructions – I knew that wasn’t going to be easy.

Almost ten and a half hours later my phone rang at 12.30am, waking me from a feverish sleep. A matronly nurse barked questions about chest pain and heavy bleeding (the standard 111 fare… nothing to do with the symptoms I had), before instructing me to look at the government website and self-isolate. “I just don’t quite understand how to do that indefinitely,” I said. “What’s not to understand?” she asked. “Well I have three children for a start…” I mumbled.

She softened in her tone and unleashed the full reality of my immediate future. The rules I had to live by were:

• Use the bathroom after my family and clean everything afterwards

• Use the kitchen after everyone else and do not prepare food for anyone

• Don’t touch any pets (I have two cats… luckily the independent rather than the needy type)

• Do not sneeze or cough on anyone

• Stay in an enclosed but well-ventilated room with the door shut

• Keep any tissues or rubbish you touch in a double-bagged bin bag away from everyone else, and do not dispose of it until instructed

In short, no contact with anyone – even those I had hugged 12 hours before. Oh, and the local coronavirus team would visit tomorrow.

I woke the next morning to the sound of my husband – who had been forced onto the sofa for the night – shepherding my three-year-old daughter away from my door. “I want to see mummy,” she cried. I lay in bed listening to her sob outside my door, my heart aching. Not being able to comfort or hug the ones you love is not a fun place to be. I spent the next hour listening through the door to life carrying on as normal: kids’ laughter, my husband’s shouts to put shoes on and then the front door slam. I was alone and anxious… but at least I could finally go to the bathroom without contaminating anyone. Silver linings and all that.

A few hours later my phone rang from a mysterious mobile number.

“Lisa, it’s the hospital coronavirus team. We are outside your house.”

Coronavirus: "My phone was alight with messages from concerned friends and family, the rumour spreading like wildfire that I’d been tested."

I looked out of the window and there they were. Parked opposite my house was a small white car with a green light on top.

“When I knock on your door please open it, then go back into a room with a closed door until we are ready for you.”

Retreating behind my glass kitchen door I saw two women walk in and start to cover up. Long robes, hair covers, surgical masks and a full plastic face cover. The women in white suits were here.

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“You can come out now,” the friendly nurse shouted. She swabbed my throat with a large cotton bud and, with the same bud (I know) then swabbed inside my nose. Handing over a print-out of the government website she asked how I was, before recommending fluids and paracetamol.

“I need you to go back behind the door now,” she said, her eyes the only clue to her friendly smile. In the hallway she and her colleague – who had been nowhere near me – disrobed and headed back to their car. The only thing I can think to compare the whole experience to is ET. But without the tunnel or the plant. It had only taken five minutes, but those five minutes will probably stick with me forever.

The results take 48 hours to come back, so now it was just a case of self-isolating and waiting. Feeling fairly poorly, I spent most of the next two days in bed, my time consumed with napping, The Morning Show, and obsessively scrolling through news headlines for updates on this condition they now thought I may have. 

My phone was alight with messages from concerned friends and family, the rumour spreading like wildfire that I’d been tested (thanks in most part to my 9-year-old son telling his classmates I was 72% likely to have it. I have to commend his statistical imagination on that one). Unlike my son, I was still fairly convinced I didn’t have it, but other people’s concern was an issue, and it did seem odd my husband and children could carry on as normal. When a friend swerved my husband in the local supermarket it suddenly dawned on all of us that we were fast becoming social pariahs.

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“I’m living under the Italian coronavirus lockdown. This is what it’s like.”

As I started to feel better I FaceTimed my family downstairs, spoke for hours on the phone to friends (O2 are going to be baffled when they see my bill, I’ve not made voice calls that long for a decade) and braved putting on a surgical mask to pop downstairs and see my family. But the mask made it difficult to breathe with the cough and cold, and my children were clearly freaked out by the sight of me, so I retreated back to my room. Feeling ill and sorry for myself, I spent a lot of time staring at the wardrobes I couldn’t quite face decluttering and listening through the door to my life happening without me.

On Monday, almost 72 hours after the test and a lot of pacing around the house whilst everyone was out, the call I had been waiting for arrived.

“Lisa, I’m really pleased to tell you your results have come back negative.”

Delight, of course, but also a bit of “I knew it”.

“Do you still have any symptoms?” the kind-sounding doctor asked.

My heart sank. “Yes, a cough and cold,” I said bleakly. I may not have had Covid-19 but I’d definitely had a flu-like bug.

“Well in that case we need you to self-isolate until it’s two weeks since you returned from Italy, or the cough goes. Whichever comes first. We’re just cautious about missed positive results.”

It was Monday… Friday would be exactly two weeks since my return. After a quick discussion she agreed I could leave my room as long as I was cautious not to cough or sneeze near anyone and to wash my hands frequently, and still no food preparation. Mostly it was common sense about how not to spread this to my family. Freedom to move around the house was something, at least.

Coronavirus: "Ploughing through a long-outstanding to-do list and getting on top of my inbox was satisfying, but creating ideas was so much harder on my own."

As I started to feel better, and my family went back to work and school, the boredom really kicked in. I’m set up to work from home, which definitely helped, and making the occasional call to the office lifted my spirits, making me feel a lot more useful than I did at home. Ploughing through a long-outstanding to-do list and getting on top of my inbox was satisfying too, but creating ideas was so much harder on my own.

In truth, I got a huge amount of work done, but I felt odd. I had started wandering around the house and would find myself suddenly jumping up and down desperate to move around more. I longed to walk somewhere. My attention span had started to wane too and my mind kept flitting about. I was bored with everything. I was desperate for fresh air and sunlight… but more importantly the company of other people and the freedom to pop to the shops or pick up my children from school. 

I’ve always known I’m an extrovert but the energy I get from other people really is essential to my happiness, and I needed some sort of stimulus that wasn’t coming through my laptop or my phone. Admittedly I was getting over the flu, but I felt really quite odd. It would seem I’m definitely not the right type of person to cope with any level of confinement.

So what did I learn from my time in self-isolation and from having the Covid-19 test?

• Firstly, I am a social creature and interaction is essential to me. Voice calls and FaceTime help to a degree, but nothing quite replaces IRL interaction with people or a hug with your loved ones. Take that away from me for too long and I think I would become rapidly unhinged.

• Being outside is SO good for you. Fresh air, sunlight, a change of scenery – all the cliches. It was so exciting to step outside I even started volunteering to take the bins out, punching the air at my minor victory.

• Lack of stimulation is terrible for motivation and your attention span. I consider myself a motivated and driven person, but just a week on my own was enough to undo all that.

woman-outside
Coronavirus: "Being outside is SO good for you. Fresh air, sunlight, a change of scenery – all the cliques."

• Reading coronavirus headlines every 20 minutes for 14 hours straight, eight days in a row is definitely not good for anyone and doesn’t help anything.

• The NHS are heroes. Bar the slightly scary phone call and the clear pressure on the 111 service, I was tested and dealt with quickly. Two friendly NHS workers came to my home at the risk of infection to themselves. The doctors I spoke to gave me time and patiently answered my questions, despite probably being asked all the same things hundreds of times already that day. Simply put, it’s easy to criticise but our NHS is exceptional.

• Finally, The Morning Show is without doubt the best TV show I have seen in a long time, and the last episode is just WOW. I’m recommending it to everyone, with or without quarantine.

morning show
Binge watching The Morning Show helped Lisa get through her self-isolation.

In short, however much I thought I’d like a period of self-isolation, it wasn’t the Marie Kondo dream I’d hoped for. Despite the extra hours of sleep, and that brilliant binge on The Morning Show, I would have happily swapped all of it for the all-clear on my health and a hug from a friendly face.

But my biggest learning from all of this is that I felt in safe hands. I had quick care from people who were prepared to do whatever they could to ensure that I, and my family and friends around me, were safe and well. And I’d take a stint in self-isolation any day of the week in exchange for that level of care. 

Images: Getty, Unsplash, Apple TV

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