Covid-19 Q&A: UK experts discuss how their lives have changed

The Guardian spoke to four health and science figures to learn how the pandemic has impacted their daily life

Where and when do you wear a face mask?

Peter Horby, professor of emerging infectious diseases at Oxford University, chief investigator on the Recovery trial, and member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage): “I bought a cloth face covering. I’ve worn it at the shops when they’ve been busy and there’s not been much space. I’ll be wearing it more now that it’s compulsory.”

Catherine Noakes, professor of environmental engineering for buildings at the University of Leeds, and a member of Sage: “I don’t wear one outdoors but I always wear one when I go to the supermarket. I carry a mask with me if I’m out and I’m likely to spend any time in an indoor environment.”

Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute and a chief scientific advisor to the European commission: “I follow government guidelines, for example, I wear a mask when travelling on public transport.

Eleanor Riley, professor of immunology and infectious disease at the University of Edinburgh: “I wore a face mask the first few times I went to the supermarket, but it was big, empty and well-ventilated, so I stopped. Since it’s now mandatory I’ve started again. I don’t wear one when I’m walking in the street, but I always carry one with me.

Have you had friends or family round for dinner indoors?

Horby: “My mother has come over just once.”

Noakes: “I recently had my parents over to stay for a couple of days, and it was lovely to catch up. I was comfortable with this as my husband and I have been working at home throughout and so we have had very little opportunity to be exposed to the virus. I wouldn’t have invited them if we were interacting with more people.”

Nurse: “I have had my daughters and small grandchildren at my house for dinner indoors.”

Riley:I’ve had friends around for dinner in the garden.”

Have you been on the bus?

Horby: “I’m in the luxurious position of being able to get to work on a bicycle, which is great. I haven’t been on any public transport. I’m hoping that one upside of the pandemic is that the benefits of cycling will be more widely appreciated.”

Noakes: “I live in a rural North Yorkshire village where there are only two buses a week so this hasn’t been something I have needed to consider.”

Nurse: “Yes, I have been on buses lots of times as I had to use public transport as a key worker. Generally, the buses have been rather empty.”

Riley: “Not since mid-March. I haven’t needed to.”

Have you got any holidays planned?

Horby:I certainly need one, but no. I spent last weekend in a caravan with my family at Camber Sands. Unfortunately it rained one day, which was a bit of a disappointment but it was good to get away. We haven’t got any holidays planned. I’ll try and find time, but it’s a bit difficult, we have trials running and it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen.”

Noakes: “Yes, I have, as I realised that I’ve been working very long hours for the past four months and I really need a break. We have a caravan so we are planning to spend a couple of weeks away close to my husband’s family.”

Nurse: “I have two holidays planned. One in August with my daughters and their families in a family hotel near Bath, and one in October when I hope to be gliding in the Welsh mountains, where I will be seriously socially distanced!”

Riley: “I took last week off. I stayed at home but did several day trips out including to the beach, the botanic gardens and to visit friends in the borders. I’ve booked a cottage in the north-west of Scotland for September. I got to the point where I needed something to look forward to. Life was OK but getting a bit tedious.”

Have you been to the pub or for an indoor restaurant meal yet?

Horby: We’ve had one indoor restaurant meal. We treated ourselves when the restaurants opened. It was our first outing in many, many months. It was me, my wife and the two children, an extravagant ‘order whatever you want’ outing. The restaurant had laid out the spacing nicely. I felt very comfortable with it, it was well-managed. The pub is next on the list.”

Noakes: “No I haven’t. I still think that spending a long period of time in a public indoor environment without a mask is too risky at the moment. I also think I would be too busy studying the Covid control measures in the pub to be able to relax and enjoy it.”

Nurse: “I have not been to a pub or for an indoor restaurant meal yet.”

Riley: “Indoor dining has only just opened up in Scotland. A lot of places are either booked solid or still closed. But I do have a dinner reservation for the first weekend in August!”

How has pandemic affected you most?

Horby: It’s been very tiring. I’ve been working on this since 2 January, pretty much non-stop, seven days a week, more than 12 hours most days. My area of expertise is epidemic diseases, so I can’t really complain because I’ve set myself up for this kind of scenario. Professionally, it’s been very interesting and rewarding, but also very tiring because it’s been so long now. And it’s hard on the family. I’m locked away from 7am to 8pm or 9pm for months. I think it’s been tough on the children and my wife.”

Noakes: “Since April I’ve been working to try to understand how the virus is transmitted and how we can control it in the environment. This has had a massive impact as my research area has gone from something quite niche to a topic that is all over the media every single day. Some of this is hard: long hours spent in meetings are not great for health and wellbeing, or family life. However, I’ve been working with some truly amazing people over the past few months and been overwhelmed by the commitment of so many scientists worldwide to work together to come up with the best solutions we can. Also for the first time in over 15 years I’ve not had to commute for two hours a day. I never realised how tiring that was until I stopped.”

Nurse: “The pandemic has affected me most by disrupting the rhythm of my work. I never seem to stop working whether I am at home or at work.”

Riley: “It sounds dreadful to say but I’ve quite enjoyed the lockdown. I switch off Zoom and I’m home. I haven’t missed the work-related travel. My working life has changed almost completely. I’ve been helping UK Research and Innovation manage the research response, which has been fascinating. There’s a real can-do approach from the funders and the community.”

Have you had other people in your house?

Horby: “We’ve had socially distanced drinks in the garden.”

Noakes: “Only my parents when they visited, and a neighbour who called round briefly one afternoon.”

Nurse: “In the last couple of weeks we have allowed our cleaner inside our home.”

Riley: “Yes, the cleaner, a chap to mow the lawn, a house painter. An electrician came to fix the light. I’ve been fairly relaxed about that. I’ve kept out of their way when they’ve been here, but I haven’t been worried about them being here.”

Have you been tested for Covid-19?

Horby: “I’ve not been tested.”

Noakes: “No.”

Nurse: “At the Francis Crick Institute we test everybody every week for the virus to keep everyone safe. The turnaround is usually less than 12 hours and is much appreciated by staff. It is not considered to be a perk for which tax should be paid however!”

Riley:No.”

Have you had arguments/debates with friends or family about how to respond to the pandemic and interpretation of risks?

Horby:I’m on Sage and the family ask questions about what is reported in the press. They are quite sensitive in that they don’t want to point the finger, and say ‘you’re on Sage, how come we’ve had so many deaths in the UK?’ I wouldn’t say there are arguments, but there are certainly debates about whether we introduced the lockdown measures early enough or not, and if not, why not. I get asked a lot of questions by friends and family. Should I go to the chemists, should I wear a mask, should I visit my aunty?”

Noakes: “I’ve had a few debates, but mostly on the differences between science and policy rather than interpreting risk. My friends and family know that I’m working on the science of transmission and risks, so they ask for advice rather than challenging it. The hardest bit is when I don’t know the answer. As it is a new disease, there’s so much we don’t know yet about how it transmits.”

Nurse: “I’ve had endless discussions with close family and friends over interpretation of the rules, but then the rules were not very clear in the first place.”

Riley: “Oh yes. I’ve had fewer of those discussions with people who understand the science. Friends who are scientists are on the same page. With friends who are not scientists it’s more of a struggle. I feel sometimes they don’t quite understand how viruses work, or what the risks are, and their responses aren’t always logical. They’re doing what they’re told but they’re not quite sure why they’re doing it.”

Have you been to the hairdressers, the gym (if open!), or a swimming pool?

Horby: “My wife cut my hair in the garden and she did such a good job that people accused me of having gone to an illicit barbers. I’m a runner and I’ve increased my running. I used to run just at the weekends but now I try and run three mornings a week as well. I’m also a member of a sailing club and I got back in a boat for the first time on Tuesday. It was great, my first time since last summer, except there wasn’t enough wind.”

Noakes: “I managed to get a hair appointment just after they opened. I wore my mask throughout and I was very impressed at the level of thought that the salon had put into managing risks.”

Nurse: “I don’t go to gyms or pools, but I have run repeatedly up and down the local canal path and the River Thames. I am going to a barber tonight.”

Riley: “I went to the hairdresser last week. Gyms and indoor pools are not open yet in Scotland.”

Are you worried about a second wave?

Horby: “Yes. It’s quite a likely scenario. Most of the population are not immune and we know that the virus is very transmissible. We know it can be transmitted from people who have mild or no symptoms, and we know most viral respiratory infections tend to be transmitted more in the winter. So I think there are lots of reasons to be prepared for a winter resurgence.”

Noakes: “I am worried, because the highest risks for transmission are in crowded indoor environments, and in winter people are much more likely to be indoors. People will also be more likely to close windows and doors when it is cold, and so ventilation will be reduced. It is really important that we do everything we can to control the spread of the virus over the summer so that the numbers of cases are as low as possible going into the autumn.”

Nurse: “I am very concerned about a second wave in winter, which I think is a real possibility.

Riley: “This virus is flourishing in hot parts of the southern US and the fact that it can flourish in warm weather means I’m less worried than I was about a seasonal effect.”

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