When the news leaked at the weekend that the government was considering telling those aged 70 and over to self-quarantine for 12 weeks to protect them from catching coronavirus, I began to worry about my elderly neighbours. How will they get essential supplies, particularly if the supermarkets’ home delivery services get backed up? What if they’re not on Netflix and have gone through all their box sets? Who will walk their dogs? It was time to summon up that famous Dunkirk spirit and create a network of volunteers willing to muck in until the crisis is over.
A bit of googling revealed I was far from alone in thinking this. Turns out, neighbourhood groups across the country have set up WhatsApp groups to look after vulnerable people during the epidemic. But when I suggested this to the chair of my local residents’ association — Richard, 68 — he demurred. Many of the over-70s won’t know how to use WhatsApp, he explained, and some of them won’t have mobiles or internet access.
Better, he decided, to put a simpler system in place. So he emailed all the people in the association and asked anyone willing to help to reply with their name, address and phone number. Once he’d accumulated a list of volunteers, he then sent out a second email that included the volunteers’ contact details and advised anyone who needs assistance to call the person on the list who lives nearest to them. That makes sense, not least because many of the volunteers will already know their elderly neighbours.
When I told Rosemary, my fit-as-a-fiddle septuagenarian mother-in-law, about this arrangement she was less impressed than I’d hoped. ‘I don’t need anyone to do my shopping for me,’ she harrumphed. But wasn’t she worried about getting Covid-19? ‘If my number’s up, my number’s up,’ she said. That was all very well, I explained, but if she’s unlucky enough to require hospital care, her children won’t simply let her die. They’ll dial 999. And she may end up in an intensive care bed that could otherwise be used by someone else. In effect, her unwillingness to self-quarantine could result in someone else’s unnecessary death. ‘Fiddlesticks,’ she said. ‘They won’t waste a hospital bed on me and nor should they.’
She was subsequently vindicated when Boris announced on Monday that not all over-70s will have to stay behind closed doors, only those with certain underlying health conditions. He also said that if any member of a household has a persistent cough or a high temperature, the entire household has to self-isolate for 14 days. With four children of school age, that could soon mean me. ‘Looks like I may have to do your shopping for you,’ laughed Rosemary.
One of the downsides to quarantining my family, should we need to do that, is we’ve just got a new puppy. Having learnt the hard way that a Hungarian vizsla is far too big to keep in a London home, we decided to get the smallest dog imaginable — a cavapoochon. She’s a cross between a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, a toy poodle and a bichon frise, which means she’s been genetically engineered to be almost microscopic. She fits in the palm of my hand and her bark at top volume sounds like a very angry mouse. But being only 12 weeks old, she wees and poos all over the house, and the fact that her brain is the size of a pea makes her hard to train. If we’re not allowed to take her to the park, I think I might go insane.
Some wags are speculating that all this self-isolating could lead to a spike in the birth rate over Christmas, but I fear a rise in the divorce rate — and apparently that’s already happened in China’s Hubei province. I don’t think my wife Caroline will take kindly to an extended quarantine period. In the past, she’s always stopped me from putting a camp bed in my garden shed for fear that I’d just move out of the house, leaving her to look after the kids, but she may insist on it now. Only she’ll send the kids down to the shed to live with me.
Clearly, it won’t just be the Dunkirk spirit that’s summoned by this crisis, and we’ve already witnessed the unedifying spectacle of empty supermarket shelves. We’ll have to look to tough old buzzards like my mother-in-law to show us how to get through it. At least if things get desperate there’s no risk we’ll eat the dog. She wouldn’t even make an amuse-bouche.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.