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England, unlike its European neighbors, had gone on lockdown almost two weeks ago. Before, the country had been trying to implement a specific strategy: let the coronavirus spread, so those who recover, would have “herd immunity,” and not be contagious. Yet, later, the government has announced the quarantine. A software developer from London, Michele Di Cosmo, shares with The Storyfy his observations on the quarantine in England such as: a person who already has symptoms is advised to self-isolate for a week, not two; the businesses responded to the coronavirus outbreak much faster than the authorities; people are allowed to postpone their rent payment, and the supermarkets are allowed to sell only two packs of pasta per person.

a bold man wearing glasses and smiling
A software developer from London Michele di Cosmo (nickname Sid)
The Storyfy features a series of interviews with people from different countries hit by the coronavirus outbreak. What we mostly get from the news related to the pandemic is statistics. Meanwhile, there are people trapped in between those numbers. Ordinary people, who feel, cry, fear, yet find a reason to laugh and dream even in the middle of the virus madness.
  • Hey Sid! How are things in London now? England, unlike other countries, has declared lockdown like ten days ago. Before, the country had followed somewhat a special strategy…

Well, you can say a special strategy. Or you can also say we didn’t really have a strategy. I mean, the strategy was to let the coronavirus spread as much as it can, and then it creates “herd immunity,” so maybe recovered people would not be contagious. Of course, that strategy implies that a lot of people must die in order for that to work, which is a scary tactic that I didn’t agree to. I do not know the real intention of our government to implement such tactics. Some people can argue that the government made such a decision facing the fact that the National Health System (NHS) would not be able to cope anyway.

Podcast: England on lockdown. What’s going on in the country?

But in my opinion, it’s also a political decision that one has to take because… What or who do you want to favor? Economy or people? What is your priority? I’m happy that the initial strategy has been slowly changing. The government had a lot of pressure from various entities – from own politicians to the US authorities, and yeah, thanks to that the first week we had been in a half-lockdown.

  • Half-lockdown? Did I hear you correctly?

Absolutely. I’m saying “half-lockdown,” because until very recently there had been still lots of activities which were allowed. Basically, you were free to do what you want. At the same time, let’s say, in Italy, you can do only the strictly necessary things. Our government’s understanding of “necessary” is quite broad. Like, for example, food delivery is necessary – it is logical. At the same time, construction works have been still going on, as they are also considered essential. So it’s a grey area where each government has to decide according to its priorities and values.

But anyway, just a few days ago, things have gone stricter.

  • So what are the rules for British people like now? You are allowed to leave the house, right?

We have been ordered to “stay indoors” and only to leave the house if it is necessary, such as for shopping for food and medicine and exercising for an hour. Going out for a little walk totally makes sense. Why not? It’s a little bit of relief anyway.

For instance, my parents live in Italy, and they go out once a week. And it’s been three weeks now of following such routine. I really respect the fact that they are coping with that well because I certainly am struggling a little bit sometimes.

infographics - when can you live the house during the quarantine in egland
  • What do you mean?

Well, I decided to self-isolate for two weeks. One of the reasons was because people around were not taking the situation seriously. I was hearing news from Italy because my parents and friends are there. And I was just having a sense of how bad it was. But even for me, having these stories firsthand, it was tough to imagine how life must have been there because it’s kind of a post-apocalyptic movie, you know. So it took me a couple of days to accept that, and then I realized that what I was doing was not enough. And if I have the grasp of that, and I do not do anything, then I am responsible for making it worse. Some people might die because of my actions today. So that’s why I decided to self-isolate.

  • You said that was one of the reasons to self-isolate. What were the other ones?

It turned out that the person that lives in the room in front of me has been infected with COVID-19. So everyone who has been in contact with that person (by definition of the government “who is in the same household,”) has to self-isolate for 14 days. Thus you diminish statistically the possibility of spreading the disease. (According to the Stay at Home guidance for households, a person who has been showing symptoms has to self-isolate for seven days – Ed.)

Anyway, I guess, to give a clearer picture, I have to mention a few details about the place where I live. It’s a building of 180 people. The way it is structured is that we have rooms, corridors, and shared facilities (like kitchens). We’re not self-contained at all. So living in such conditions and in such times you definitely need to be extremely aware because you are responsible for your neighbors as well.

It’s been very interesting to witness how people create new rules and try to follow them for the sake of the community. 

  • How do locals cope with that #stayhome decision? Do they follow it? Are there still some bars remain open?

Well, I haven’t lived in other countries recently to compare. Still, after having read the news and analytics from credible sources, my understanding is that their governments have been way more proactive than ours. What is happening in England instead? The businesses have started to act and become much more promptly than the authorities. Let’s say, if you went for a walk two weeks ago, you would not have found many people in the city in the business areas; they were quite empty. Those who could work from home had been doing so. Accordingly, bars, pubs, and cafes were mostly closed because simply there were not so many customers. But if you walked around my district, which is a poor residential area, everything was open up until the real half-lockdown of a week ago.

Yeah. It’s been really interesting because all the decisions about the cancellation of events such as business forums and conferences have been made before the government announced a lockdown. Let’s keep in mind that the government did say that we should avoid any unnecessary contact with others, but it was far from starting to enforce it. So yeah, the private sector started acting on this. And only recently it’s been enforced by the government so you actually can see real changes.

  • for people are waiting for their turn to enter the pharmacy
    Romford town in east London
  • I guess, especially the fact that pubs are closed could have been quite big news for British men who, as official reports say, spend a year of life in a pub… 

Right. But pubs have been closed for a week or so. I remember even the first day of the lockdown; there were still some pubs open. I think it’s a part of human psychology as well as the fact that locals, seems, did not have a clear understanding of what was going on and what the risks are. On the other hand, it is pretty understandable. We don’t have a lot of news from other countries; the governmental instructions have been somewhat confusing, so it’s kind of usual to expect people not to really grasp how complicated the coronavirus outbreak is.

  • Do you mean that people just did not take it seriously? As it happened in Italy when the people had been mostly ignoring the official warnings to stay at home?

Well, yeah, I think it’s similar. You know, England is one week late compared to Italy, which had already been late. So, we have started the lockdown, half a week after Italy had started doing something similar.

Overall, you know, even two-three weeks ago, while this insane situation has been going on in Italy, British people were quite relaxed. And so many of them were not even practicing common sense. If you know that this thing is going around, you can decide not to do much about it, but if you do meet other people, then, at least, I don’t know, just take a step back to have a little bit of distance! Let’s just not talk to each other’s face – as simple as that. Instead, the pubs were packed. And people obviously had not been thinking about social distancing while having a beer, as you may guess. Yeah, honestly, it was quite sad and disturbing for me.

But things have been changing. So let’s see.

  • Alright. What will happen to you for breaking the quarantine rules? You may be fined up to $7,000 or even arrested in Singapore; you have to pay 135 euros fine in France if you go out without a valid reason. What about England?

We do also have a system of fines, but it is mostly based on warnings. Anyway, I guess it forces you to be more conscious about what you’re doing and its repercussions for others. Potentially your loved ones. Yeah. So I think it makes sense.

infographics - punishment for breakin the quarantine rules in england
  • Do many people wear masks outside? Is there a shortage of masks in the country?

Mostly, not. What’s the point of wearing a mask when you are walking alone on an empty street? Especially when you sometimes see people wearing highly sophisticated and expensive masks (like £15 and more) that they don’t need. The doctors and nurses should have those, and what you’re doing is not useful. And when you see that they’re also not wearing them correctly, then it defies any possible point, right?

I was reading an article on the Guardian that our medical workers are just using surgical masks, which protect you from people coughing and sneezing, instead of the proper ones that can filter the viruses.

But yeah, there is a shortage of masks. If you go online, everything is sold out.

  • What about the gloves? If we go back to the experience of Italy, their authorities do recommend the people to wear gloves outside.

Well, I don’t wear gloves. I’ve seen some people wearing them. I failed to understand why. I think it’s much more useful and practical just to wash your hands regularly. Because if you put on gloves, then what do you do with the gloves? Are you going to clean the gloves? What’s the difference between washing the gloves and washing your hands? Or do you change them every, I don’t know, day? Are you simply throwing them away? We also have to think about the environment… (Overall, the UK doctors have been quite skeptical about wearing the gloves in a public setting, warning that it may give you a false sense of protection and lead to neglecting hand hygiene – Ed.)

  • What’s the situation like with jobs? Does the government support people?

It’s complicated. Now, it’s one of the major problems here. A lot of people lost their jobs. I am talking about nearly five million people working in the gig economy in the UK (which is around 15.6% of the total workforce, 32 million people – Ed.) They are self-employed, thus don’t have a proper contract. Think of plumbers, hairdressers, cleaners, electricians, musicians, artists… While the government committed to pay up to £2,500 (nearly $3000) each month employed workers who are furloughed during the outbreak, the gig workers till recently had been abandoned.

  • Till recently?

Yes. Now, according to the official information, self-employed people will receive 80% of their average monthly profit (which is up to £2,500 per month for at least three months. Generally, 9.95 million people had filed for unemployment for the two weeks – Ed.)

  • What’s your job?

I have two professions: I work in the outdoors events field, and I am also a software developer. These two industries are reacting very differently. The first one is paused; everything got canceled. Such businesses that usually organize different events (like team-building activities) for big companies are going to have problems. They just live on tight cash flow. They don’t have a lot of money to survive things like a pandemic. So the government announced that it would help such small businesses to get a loan. On the one hand, at least it’s something; on the other hand, this is a grant but a loan which they will have to give back.

  • Are there any other governmental steps aimed to help people?

Yes, about the rent. If you’re renting a place, landlords supposedly cannot evict you if you don’t pay. But that’s one thing on a paper, and it’s entirely relative. It depends on how good your landlord is because they can still create problems for you.

  • What about the taxes?

Yeah, there’s been some discussion about it. (So far, the government has announced that Working Tax Credits payments – a benefit designed to support people on a low income – will be increased for one year from now by £1,000 to £3,000/year which is like an extra £20 weekly per household. – Ed.)

What else? Basically, you are not obliged to pay the tax for your house and the services related to it.

I also saw that you are allowed to wait with the payment for vehicle inspection.

Yeah. So the government is giving help on that front as well. A bit. Yeah.

Also, the businesses are allowed to postpone their payment.

  • If I do show some symptoms? What am I expected to do?

You have to self-isolate for seven days and warn all the people you have been in contact with, so they would need to self-isolate for 14 days as well. Nope, you don’t go to the hospital. You just stay at home and call your GP (general practitioner), who, in most cases, would advise you to treat yourself with the paracetamol. In the UK, it is like that. To make it more clear: look, it’s normal in London to wait one-two weeks to see your GP for anything. And now, with the coronavirus pandemic, obviously the waiting time is going to be ages. Look at the statistics with over 30,000 infected and more than 2,000 deaths!

In London (I don’t know about the rest of the UK), the hospitals are very, very busy. You might go to the emergency service and end up waiting for one hour or more to be examined. So yes, that’s why you are advised to stay at home.

  • What about older people who live alone and might need some help?

In the UK, the authorities have started to recruit volunteers to help 1.5 million vulnerable people. They would be delivering food and medicine. The public response was tremendous! They were receiving some like three applications per second! Just in a few days, over 500,000 people signed up.

  • Is there a shortage of food items in supermarkets?

Well, there was a shortage of some specific food and ingredients in the beginning. There was no pasta left, for instance. But overall you can always find rice as a basic way of staying alive. Now getting food is much better. There are still shortages, but there’s more stuff. All supermarkets have a rule of “max three items of one kind per person”, and of “max two packs of pasta per person.” Queuing at a big grocery store takes 15 minutes and almost nothing at a small one. Still, there’s almost no toilet paper. (Smiles.)

Photograph Karthick Salvakumar / The Storyfy

The interesting thing is that we have a lot of deliveries from supermarkets. It is a very common way to buy stuff in the UK. Now, it’s been almost impossible to get it, of course. So, supermarkets, specifically Sainsbury’s, which is one of the leading supermarkets in the UK, is only allowing deliveries for people who are in most need. So you cannot just go to the website and book a delivery, but you have to call and explain why you need to do that. It forces you to be more conscious about what’s going on.

Overall, I think this coronavirus outbreak makes you be more aware of other people and their needs.

Useful Links
  1. World Health Organization:
  2. Google Coronavirus Website (state-based information, safety and prevention tips, search trends related to COVID-19, and further resources for individuals, educators, and businesses)
  3. Wiley Online Library (Coronavirus resources and news)
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  5. Worldometer (statistics on coronavirus constantly updated)