I ended last week's lockdown diary with a text from NHS Test and Trace. This had told me to self-isolate as I'd been identified as a 'contact' of someone who had recently tested positive for COVID-19. The next few days were a bit strange.
First of all was the test. I had a mild but persistent cough – or perhaps this was a post-hoc phenomenon – so went online and booked a test which, usefully, was available locally that same day. As an experience junkie, I approached the testing centre that evening with a mixture of trepidation and curiosity.
It was all very efficient. I was to administer the test myself in a tented booth, using a cotton-tipped stick to swab the back of my throat and nose. The former makes you gag and the latter is quite unpleasant on account of precisely how far up the nose it has to go (2.5cm). The sample was then triple-sealed and scanned, while another member of staff told me to expect a result within 24 hours (although she was careful to add a caveat that it might take as long as three days).
I'd checked the rules for self-isolation earlier that day. They're quite strict: no external activity (even solo exercise) and food shopping only allowed if you have no alternative. To be honest, apart from missing my morning run every other day, this wasn't going to make a huge amount of difference to my daily (or indeed weekly) routine: I've been working from home since March and during lockdown 2.0 was barely leaving the flat.
People kept asking if I knew who it was, as if the NHS had texted me a profile picture and telephoned number. I did try and retrace my steps on the implied date of contact – two Thursdays ago – but drew a blank. I may have gone to Asda and B&Q, both local godsends given everything else is closed, but I certainly hadn't come into prologued contact with anyone. Just to clarify, I'd been identified via Test and Trace (someone handing over my contact details) rather than via the app, though this was still 'active and scanning'.
I kept buggering on although I will confess to having felt a little trapped. A mild panic gripped me whenever a courier or postman buzzed with a delivery. I ate, worked, ate, worked some more, ate, read and slept. None of this was unpleasant but the removal of the option of going outside – permissible during the England-wide lockdown for exercise and even limited social contact – had a weird effect on my mood. My test, meanwhile, came back negative, and just shy of 24 hours after I'd stuck the swab up my nose.
On Day Three, a Glaswegian lady called from Test and Trace to see how I 'wuz' doing. I told her I wuz doin' alright. I fancied that we might have a little chat based on our shared membership of the common weal, but she couldn't wait to get off the line and, one assumes, onto the next faceless self-isolating person she was required to check-up on. I made to thank her for breaking the monotony, but she had already hung up.
Then, on Friday morning, I received another text message, this time from Gov.uk. This referenced the earlier communication but said it now knew 'that the test result of the person with whom you had contact was void'. This, it added, 'was a laboratory error'. Finally, the important bit: unless I had any symptoms (which I did not), I no longer had to self-isolate. I then showered, feeling both puzzled and elated.
A few hours later someone sent me a link to a BBC News story about hundreds of people having been wrongly told they had coronavirus by NHS Test and Trace, following the aforementioned 'laboratory error'. This had happened between 19 and 23 November, with my 'contact' having apparently taken place on the 19th.
The article went on to quote lots of very unhappy people. I'd joked to friends that I was going to sue, but I wasn't angry, on the contrary I found the whole thing quite entertaining. It had meant minimal change to my already limited routine and a slight delay to the end of lockdown 2.0. I celebrated my liberation by rebooking a planned haircut. It's not as if I'd had anywhere else to be.
By the time you read this London (and swathes of England) will be back in Tier 2, which is where it was exactly a month ago. I'm looking forward to swimming again, enjoying a 'substantial' meal somewhere other than my small kitchen, and perhaps catching up with a couple of friends, winter weather pending. This lockdown wasn't so bad. I – we – knew what to expect. Familiarity, happily, did not breed contempt. The same might not be true of lockdown 3.0.
David Torrance is
an author and contemporary historian