I have a question for our government, I have many questions for our government, but the one I’m really pondering today is: have any of you ever looked after your own children?
My Twitter and Facebook feeds are full of people who do just that and are now incredulously battling a problem that was so completely, so obviously predictable that they can’t quite believe it’s a problem at all: the UKs covid testing system has fallen apart because it’s September and kids have got bugs.
I was one of them two weeks ago. MissA developed a cough, the sort of thing that keeps a parent up all night but, in The Before Times, would just be chalked up to a standard toddler thing. Calpol, cuddles and this too shall pass. But this is now, so I tried to book a Covid test. I was offered a six hour drive. With less than two hours sleep under my belt that wasn’t just inconvenient it was downright dangerous. So I looked for home testing, none available.
It seems like things have only got worse since then. Friends can’t get any kind of test anywhere. This means kids who have missed six months of school, six months of friendship and childhood are being forced back into isolation. Parents are having to juggle work and childcare or take time off work all over again.
This government has dropped a few balls before, now it just seems to be firing them at random from a cannon. Anyone who has spent the colder half of the year wiping the endless snail trail of snot from a toddler’s nose or felt their heart sink as school’s number appears on their phone for the third time that autumn, could have told you what would happen. Kids go back to school, the weather changes, everyone gets bugs. Lots of those bugs come with a cough or a fever so if any child with those symptoms now needs a covid test (and I agree they do) the country needs massively increased testing capacity to keep up. Yet we’re told the problem is a lack of lab capacity and a new lab is on it’s way. Why was it not here at the start of September? We’ve had months to prepare for this.
But perhaps it is the rest of us who should have seen this farce coming. The warning signs were all there when Dominic Cummings, backed up by the whole government, expected us all to agree that looking after your own child while you were ill yourself was such an extreme and unusual circumstance that it warranted flouting lock down rules and endangering others.
I don’t suppose Mr Cummings, or any of his cheerleaders, began parenthood by being left alone to care 24/7 for a newborn only hours after major surgery. That was my experience and is what many new mums are going through under lockdown restrictions. But that was just the beginning. The inevitable week each winter when everyone has a vomiting bug, all those hideous viruses where I just wanted to sleep but had two or three children giving no quarter, the months of breastfeeding, night-waking and dragging myself to baby groups under the heavy fog of an undiagnosed postnatal endocrine disorder. I actually have fond memories of my first heavy cold after returning to work. I’d stopped breastfeeding, I called in sick, I took a ton of drugs and went back to bed. I felt like shit. It was glorious.
Yet if Cummings’ wife has Covid and he might possibly get it too, then that is so extreme we should all agree he’s a great chap doing the right thing endangering strangers to flee to his parents’ spare cottage. Why didn’t we all think of that? Well apart from my parents not having a spare cottage.
It’s not just Cummings of course. This morning Priti Patel has told us that if a couple of families bump into each other and start chatting in a group of more than six then they are breaking the law. I wonder how many times she’s done the school run? I walk or cycle mine every day with two or three kids. It’s London, it’s busy, of course we bump into other families along the way, I have to stand in a queue of dozens of them at pick up and drop off everyday now. Shall I be expecting a hefty fine everytime my 7 year old, who didn’t see any of her friends for 6 months, runs up to a child she will spend the rest of the day with who’s walking along the same pavement as us? I appreciate the need for clear messaging about restrictions. But a little dose of reality is needed too if people aren’t just to give up on the entire thing as ridiculous.
Then there’s Boris. Actually is there? Where is he? He doesn’t have a reputation as a great Dad,so probably not looking after the newborn. Does even he know how many kids he has? I imagine him as Dowton Abbey’s dowager duchess “Parenting is terribly hard, Nanny brings the children down before dinner every day” *
Why are we surprised then that a government filled with those who come from the most extreme end of privilege could not predict that for most parents autumn means snot?
Two weeks ago, after 4 phone calls and hours online I finally managed to get a covid test for MissA (if you’ve not used it the website is a frustrating mess by the way). I then spent two days screaming internally for the results. I was pretty sure they would be negative but I wanted to do the right thing. Without them MissE would have missed her very first day of secondary school. MissM would have missed her first day of school for six months and MissA could not have gone to her first nursery visit. We got the result on Saturday night, on Sunday MissM threw us a back to school party, complete with cake. It was lovely but also broke my heart a little, she’s seven, six months has been a very long time for her.
But what about next time? There is bound to be a next time. One of the girls will get a temperature, we will get a call from tack and trace, a school bubble will have to shut. I had hoped this autumn would be the time I got back to work or study after three years at home with three kids, now I am braced for a winter of child care emergencies and extreme teacher training. It’s a luxury that I can abandon my hopes. Frankly we are extremely privileged, yet still I feel utterly exhausted by it all.
What about the parents who are Doctors, nurses, teachers ? Kept from working for two weeks because a child got a temperature for the third time this year? The people who can’t work from home and won’t get paid for two weeks, four, six? How long before we get school bubbles shut because a parent had no choice but to risk sending in a kid with a cough?
There is no end in sight to all this. There will be no mass vaccination this autumn. The best we can hope for is to keep this thing under control for months if not years. But months and years of childhood are fleeting and precious. Children need other children, they need to be educated and not just by frazzled parents trying to figure out what the fuck a fronted adverbial is while on zoom to the boss.
We still know so little about this virus, it is impossible for even a well advised government to navigate it all without a single mistake. But there are some things you do not need an Eton education, an Oxbridge degree and a SAGE committee to know. That’s what angers and scares me now. Our lives are in the hands of people who’s own lives have been so sheltered, so cushioned from normality that they couldn’t have predicted that in Autumn, children get a little bit poorly.
I’ve not written here for ages because I was looking after my kids.
It’s going to be a long winter
*probably not the exact quote but something along those lines