We've been shielding for a year - here are the stages of 'long anti-covid'

Stephen Pope smiles in the lounge of his Norwich home.

Stephen Pope, who has been shielding for a year since coronavirus lockdown began last March. He says there are three stages to 'long anti-Covid'. - Credit: Stephen Pope

Stephen Pope has been shielding at his Norwich home for a year since coronavirus hit UK shores. He shares the ups and downs of 'long anti-covid' - and its three stages.

I’m not sure if it’s felt like twelve days or twelve years, but twelve months have gone by since the love of my life got that text from the government.

The virus was scary, and my football season was over, but the sun was shining, spring had sprung, and we felt quite upbeat about battening down the hatches and kicking back for a while.

A year of full-on, shielding lockdown later, that beat’s been through a few loops.

Everyone’s lockdown is different. Solitary or overcrowded, working or not, young or old, there are a million tales to tell, but this is the one about having long anti-covid.

For those unfamiliar with long anti-covid (I just made it up, so that’ll be all of you), it’s the prolonged bout of weirdness that sets in when a reasonably fit, frisky and sociable person spends a year hiding from a tiny virus.

As far as I can tell from the inside, long anti-covid develops in three simple stages across a year: feral frenzy; learning to live with it; and getting confused about leaving it. In case it ever happens to you, I’ll run you through them.

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Stage One began last March with all the manic panic you’d expect.

How to get supplies… what supplies to get… the fleeting horror of the baked bean shortage… how to eat our way through accidental food mountains… these were all part of the national experience, like clapping and getting to know the neighbours better.

Thorpe House Care Home staff are joined by fire fighters, police, and local residents at Griston to

Thorpe House Care Home staff are joined by fire fighters, police, and local residents at Griston to thank the NHS and all carers in the Clap for Carers. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020

So were washing your hands and keeping the virus off anything they touched, but it’s fair to say the ‘extremely vulnerable’ tag had us taking that part to another level.

Washing frenzy turned the hands into lumps of wire wool, and the search for soft soap products created a whole new mountain.

Scrubbing frenzy had the house smelling like a hospital most of the time, and deliveries, especially big food deliveries, turned into a long, twitchy ritual involving rubber gloves, bags, shedloads of sanitiser and quite a lot of freestyle dancing.

Chuck in the shambolic Zoom sessions, the torture drip of pandemic news obsession and the wine lake it took to cope with said drip, not to mention the spectacular exercise fail, and we’d gone as feral as my hair by the time people started reappearing in our front garden.

We’ve talked about this, and she thinks the sight of people living a little bit normally, even at a distance, might have been the reality check that nudged us into Stage Two, forcing us to start posing as civilised human beings once the summer got going. I think it was the haircut.

Somebody getting a haircut

Hairdressers should not be open during the third national lockdown, but Norwich City Council has served a prohibition notice on one and is investigating others. Picture: James Bass - Credit: James Bass

I’ve got a lot of very grey hair, and by mid-July it was transitioning from Geldof to Gandalf.

Something had to be done, and she’s a brave girl, so she agreed to turn hairdresser for the first time in her life – and four months of lockdown harmony went out of the window.

Turns out I’m a full-on hair diva, and the haircut itself, recklessly performed in the backyard, gave the neighbourhood a show that made that crazy parish council meeting look like a love-in.

After that, and once we were talking again, we knew we were mad. It was time to calm down.

Supply pressures eased, mates could do extra shopping for us and panic measures turned into routines.

We bothered to get dressed some of the time and got the hang of occasionally talking about something other than covid.

We dialled down the end-of-the-world wine habit and nourished the stiff upper lip by watching old war movies. Most of all, we turned obsessing about disease into obsessing about work.

So, we’re both freelance writers. If they’re mad enough, freelance writers can work all they want without having to get commissioned or paid, so I started writing up a storm as a kind of therapy.

I admit that completing four entirely self-indulgent books without even trying to sell them reminds even me of The Shining, but somehow setting targets and fooling myself into deadlines kept me cheery for the next few months.

Did I say cheery? I think we thought we were cheery, and we definitely thought we were lucky.

Comfortable in the house, used to working at home, best mate for company, no kids, a bit of outside space, top of the league, no danger of the Luftwaffe showing up… what’s not to like?

Okay, so our slow boat to China was more your two-seater canoe on a sea of pandemic stress, but as the days got shorter, we told each other we’d come through the worst in reasonable, even romantic shape.

Then we hit December, and Stage Three hit us.

They say it’s the hope that kills you, and they’ve got a point.

Government advisers decided against prioritising school and college staff in "crowded" classrooms in

Several countries have suspended use of the AstraZenica vaccine over blood clot concerns, though the manufacturer insists it is safe. - Credit: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

From the day vaccines became a reality, we were on the road back to being feral fruit bats.

Just as the health and safety paranoia was ramping up with the R number, the end of our lockdown was in sight, a long way off but definitely not a mirage.

Suddenly, we had to start thinking about real life again, and fake deadlines weren’t going to cut it.

Stress and stroppiness hit the roof, obsession with covid stats went nuclear and the frantic scrubbing started up again, to a chorus of war-movie cliches about not getting killed just before the armistice.

It’s been that way all through the latest lockdown, a pair of headless chickens counting the hours until the first jab, then the hours until the second, and then the hours until the day we go out and mix with the world.

It peaked just before she got a shot in the arm in mid-February, and the two weeks waiting for my turn transformed me into a seething, whining jab-envy monster.

That was the absolute low point of the whole year, but now, almost a month after her first jab, we can start girding up for a taste of real life.

We should be excited, over the moon even, and in lots of ways we are, but at the same time we’re on an edge.

I can play football, we can hug and hang with the folks we love, I can play more football, and one day we might even go out and have someone else cook our dinner.

Right now, that feels like a set of adventures fit for Indiana Jones, but can we handle it?

Ask me in a month or three. Right now, I never felt less like Indiana Jones in my life.