New Brunswick

Dispatches from the U.K.'s toughest lockdown yet

Valerie Hillier moved from Fredericton to Liverpool last fall, but the soaring rate of COVID infections in the United Kingdom has made it nearly impossible to make new friends.    

N.B. woman who moved overseas shares tales of shuttered cities, self-serve COVID tests and lots of Netflix

Valerie Hillier, seen here with her partner, Clint Schile, moved from Fredericton to Liverpool, England, last fall. (Submitted by Valerie Hillier)

Valerie Hillier moved from Fredericton to Liverpool last fall, but the soaring rate of COVID-19 infections in the United Kingdom, fuelled by a new variant, has made it nearly impossible to make new friends.       

The U.K. is four weeks into its third and toughest lockdown since the start of the pandemic.

The latest lockdown came into effect Jan. 6 as a variant of the coronavirus, first detected in September in Kent, rapidly became the most common form of the virus in England and spread to other countries. 

Currently, all schools are closed. Restaurants, pubs and coffee shops can only serve takeout.

Outdoor exercise is encouraged, but only once a day and not too far from home.

It's against the law to meet up socially with family or friends who are not part of your single-household bubble.   

And there's no leaving home for leisure or recreation. 

"So I haven't had an opportunity to meet anyone," said Hillier.

"Like everybody else, I've been doing puzzles, I watch Netflix, I have my knitting."

Self-serve COVID tests

Once a week, Hillier and her partner, Clint Schile, voluntarily go to a COVID-19 testing station, where they're given materials to collect their own specimens. 

"It's really not that bad," she said. "You swab the back of your mouth near your tonsils on each side for five seconds and then you put it up your nose as far as you can go until you feel it hit the back and swab for 10 more seconds."

The samples are identified by bar codes and once they're submitted, results are communicated quickly.

Within 30 minutes, Hillier said, "you will either get a text or an email." 

BBC radio host Graham Liver takes his 74-year-old father, Mick, to get his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 29. (Submitted by Graham Liver)

BBC Radio presenter Graham Liver does his own testing twice a week, using kits provided by his employer.

As host of the Lancashire Breakfast Program, Liver has blogged about life in previous lockdowns in his hometown of Penwortham.

Recently, he reported on what it was like to take his 74-year-old father for his first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

"I found it a very moving experience," said Liver. "Just a lot of silver-haired people queuing up to get vaccinated."

"The way it's been organized is incredible. Our [National Health Service] is doing a remarkable job."

It was also good to see his father again, Liver said.

"It's weird not seeing my family as much. It was the first time I'd seen my dad in a very long time."

Liver said people are strongly discouraged from moving around unless absolutely necessary. 

"A big topic on my radio show is people getting into their car and driving somewhere, driving in some cases a really long way, to go for a nice walk," he said.

"People are being told, listen, it's probably best that you don't do that. Probably best if you leave your front door, go for a walk, and come home."

10 million people received 'first jabs'

Liver said people are feeling anxious about mutations in the virus, but the message so far is that existing vaccines still provide some protection. 

According to the web site, the National Health Service (NHS) administered first doses to 10,021,471 million people between Dec. 8, 2020 and Feb. 2, 2021.

That includes 90 per cent of everyone over the age of 75. 

"This is equivalent to vaccinating the total capacity of 111 Wembley stadiums in just eight weeks," the Department of Health and Social Care, calling it "an important step" towards hitting Prime Minister Boris Johnson's target of offering vaccines to the top four priority groups by the middle of February.

That good feeling was recently dampened by the news that a veteran of the Second World War had died, Liver said. 

Capt. Sir Thomas Moore raised 33 million pounds for NHS charities by walking laps in his garden in Bedfordshire. His death on Feb. 2, one week after he tested positive for COVID-19, cast a pall on the U.K. (Peter Cziborra/Reuters)

Capt. Sir Tom Moore had become a national inspiration for raising some 33 million pounds ($58 million Cdn) for NHS charities by walking laps in his garden in the East England county of Bedfordshire.

He died Feb. 2 at the age of 100, one week after testing positive for COVID-19.

Now, Liver said, "everyone's optimistic about the vaccine, sad about Captain Tom, and just kind of hunkering down for a bit."

Hillier tells friends in N.B. to 'hold fast'

Hillier says it was hard to watch the death toll soar in the days after Christmas.

On Jan. 8, the U.K. reported 1,325 deaths from COVID-19, the highest since the start of the pandemic.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised to give an update on the lockdown on Feb. 22. 

Hillier says she's in regular contact with friends back in New Brunswick and knows they're worried about the province's response to the arrival of the variant. 

As of Friday, three cases of the highly transmissible variant and a fourth suspected case had been confirmed in the province. 

"If there were to be a complete lockdown, I would say 'Hold fast.' It's worth it just to get through this thing," said Hillier. 

"Here, it's very upsetting to go into town. I feel horrible seeing all the businesses shuttered. It's so dead and Liverpool is a city of two million people.

"But at the same time, I feel like that's what we have to do to get this thing under control."

Hillier doesn't expect to be vaccinated until May or even later. 

Meanwhile, she's working on making new connections, even though it's difficult. 

Last Thursday, she chatted with a real Liverpudlian, someone who'd been recommended as a possible new friend.

Hillier was a director of programming for the Fredericton Playhouse and this new contact, she said, also had a long career in the performing arts. 

It was a virtual meeting via Zoom but it was a connection just the same, and in these strange times, that's what matters.

"It was lovely," Hillier said.


Rachel Cave is a CBC reporter based in Saint John, New Brunswick.