We had finally relaxed and were now properly enjoying our first chance to visit family and friends in the UK in two years. And although we had so far only made two of our six scheduled stops, it was already abundantly clear that being able to re-connect with some of the most important people in our lives after so long was, without a shadow of a doubt, worth every second of the pre-travel stress from all the Covid-related form-filling and test-booking on top of remembering how to make all the other arrangements for our trip.
Once we had successfully uploaded the negative results of our obligatory Day 2 lateral flow tests while sitting in my brother-in-law’s cosy farmhouse kitchen, the worry-bots finally shut down and allowed us to enjoy the simple pleasure of sharing the company of those we hold most dear. And by the time we set off a couple of days later from our 2nd port of call where I had enjoyed an extra-special birthday with two of our closest friends, the pleasure of re-connection had given way to an delicious sense of well-being.
We had not long started our two-hundred-mile drive to Devon for our next round of visits and were winding through unfamiliar suburbs toward the motorway south when our phones pinged almost simultaneously: incoming emails. As I reached into my handbag, they both pinged again, this time for incoming text messages. I nervously opened the text, somehow already certain of its contents. And sure enough: NHS Test and Trace has identified you as a contact of someone who has recently tested positive for Covid-19… I felt sick.
I was still reading the message when Mr Blue-Shirt’s phone rang.
….unless you are exempt….
It was the ringtone that meant only one thing: the burglar alarm had gone off at home. We looked at each other in disbelief. It is over two years since we were burgled, but the alarm going off still always sends us into a tailspin.
Mr Blue-Shirt fumbled for his phone, continuing to steer with his knees.
My phone joined in with the same ringtone.
“At the roundabout, take the second exit towards the M1.”
I punched the ‘accept call’ button.
“Alarm alert – control panel – check battery. Alarm alert – control panel – check battery.”
“Check battery?? What the ….?!”
Mr Blue-Shirt gave up on his phone and prodded at the hands-free controls on the steering wheel.
“And in today’s Woman’s Hour phone-in, we’ll be talking about….”
…. your NHS Test and Trace account…
Mr Blue-shirt finally found the ‘answer call’ button.
“Alarm alert – control panel – battery low. Alarm alert…”
… you should book a PCR test…
“I think the power must be out at home…”
“But before that, my special guest in the studio this morning is …..”
“After 200 metres, turn left, then immediately move …”
My head was about to explode.
Mr Blue-Shirt swung into a lay-by and switched off the engine. As our heart rates gradually slowed, we tried to gather our thoughts.
“We don’t have the NHS app so it must have been our passenger locator forms,” said Mr Blue-Shirt eventually.
“It’s small comfort right now, but at least it shows they do actually work, I suppose. But what if one of us has got it? God knows what we do then. Our whole trip would be gone for a start. After all this time and all this effort, if…!” My voice caught in my throat.
“We won’t have it, though – will we,” said Mr Blue-Shirt firmly. “We did lateral flow tests at Phil’s and they were both negative, plus we’re both double-vaxxed.”
I took a deep breath and forced myself to think logically. “Yes, you’re right. Plus everyone was masked at the airport and throughout the flight. So the chances we’ve caught it are actually really low, aren’t they… Let’s do another lateral flow test now, though – just for our own peace of mind.”
“Good idea. I think we ought to book PCR tests too.”
“Definitely, but lateral flows first, eh?”
“Yes, and I’ll try and sort out the alarm while we wait for the results.”
I rummaged in our bags for the test kits we had had the forethought to order at the same time as our Day 2 tests, and as we sat in the front of the car with the vials and swabs balanced on our laps, we carefully went through all the steps, placed the slim white cassettes on the dashboard – and crossed our fingers.
With our tests doing their thing, Mr Blue-Shirt called the friend who we had given the spare keys to and asked if he could go and check the house and find out why the power was off, and I finally read the email and text properly. Slowly, our tension eased a little. It turned out that several days of heavy rain and high winds at home had caused lots of power cuts, and so it was this that had almost certainly triggered the alarm system alert rather than any intruders. Just as encouragingly, I realised that we shouldn’t need to self-isolate as we were both fully vaccinated – provided neither of us was positive, of course. We glanced apprehensively at our test cassettes. A single red line had appeared in the result slot of each of them: negative. We both exhaled deeply. That was something, at least. But we still had to get the power and alarm back on and book our PCR tests, which we decided to do in the relative comfort of a service station coffee shop rather than at the roadside.
A few miles later, we pulled into the first motorway services we came to, grabbed lour laptops from the boot and settled ourselves in a secluded corner of Starbucks with a much-needed cup of strong tea. An intense hour or so followed as I worked through the laborious process of booking our PCR tests while Mr Blue-Shirt focused on getting the power and alarm back on. But finally, we flopped back in our chairs and pushed our empty mugs to one side: we were there. Mr Blue-Shirt had successfully talked Antonio through finding the fuse box, getting the power back on and the alarm re-set, and I had got two PCR tests booked at the drive-in centre just outside Exeter at eight o’clock the following morning. Now we just had to re-schedule all our Exeter visits and warn everyone what had happened, for although we were both double-vaxxed, were completely symptomless and had done two negative lateral flow tests, the fact that we had been identified as contacts of someone who had tested positive had re-booted the worry-bots and so we felt we should avoid seeing anyone – my wonderful 90-year-old aunt and her lovely 94-year-old husband in particular – until we had formal confirmation that we were in the clear.
Waiting for our results holed up in our bland but functional budget hotel room was excruciating and our earlier sense of well-being soon became just a distant memory. With every ping and bleep we both leapt for our phones, desperate for the news that would release us from the agony of uncertainty and allow us to do what we had been looking forward to for so long. Then 30 nerve-wracking hours after our swabs had been taken, the messages we had been longing for dropped into our inboxes: Your coronavirus PCR test (or other lab test) is negative…
It wasn’t until I finally embraced my precious aunt’s fragile frame that the relief really hit me and tears spilled down my face onto her shoulder. Eventually I stood back and held her delicate hands in mine, and that delicious sense of well-being and re-connection came flooding back as I looked into those familiar, twinkling grey eyes.
“This Covid thing’s a bugger, isn’t it,” she said.