UK (Sky News)

Coronavirus diary – Jeremy Thompson on life under lockdown

By March 27, 2020 No Comments
Jeremy Thompson is a former Sky News presenter

Jeremy Thompson is a former Sky News presenter in his 70s.

Here he documents how the coronavirus is impacting everyday life with a personal diary on the pandemic.

Social Distancing

Explainer: How to self-isolate

Saturday 14 March

We’re in Spain on the Costa del Sol, and for the first time there’s a noticeable change in mood.

The sun’s still out, but the normally sociable, gregarious Spanish are looking worried.

Containment is closing in.

The plazas are less populated, tapas bars half empty, beaches deserted. Still, it’s Saturday night.

My wife and I decide to head out to dinner. The lights are on in Bar Canuto, our favourite local seafood restaurant, but few diners have ventured out. Our usually jovial waiter Alex shrugs resignedly and informs us that they’ve been told to shut down from tonight, indefinitely. We make the most of our clams and white prawns.

We’re beginning to realise this could literally be our last supper – at a restaurant anyway – for weeks, if not months.

Spain has been among the hardest hit by coronavirus
Spain has been among the hardest hit by coronavirus

Sunday 15 March

We wake to discover Spain’s state of alarm is now a reality.

Bars, restaurants, clubs, cinemas, theatres, museums, sporting events and concerts are all locked down. Fiestas and marches are suspended. Most citizens are told to stay at home, and only allowed out to visit food shops or pharmacies, and then only one person in a car.

The government of the young socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez appears to be enforcing the shutdown with a draconian zeal that might have had General Franco looking on admiringly.

We hope to lift the gloom with friends at our weekly fun golf scramble event, Amigos, only to receive a message apologising that it had been cancelled until further notice.

Soon after comes an email from the golf club itself confirming that it was shutting indefinitely, along with every other course in Spain.

Already growing stir crazy, I set out for a walk determined to keep exercising. My sensible and law-abiding wife insisted it was against the rules, if not the law. I walk anyway and feel better for it.

But within hours Marbella Police confirm that the government decree restricts free movement of citizens and that includes going for a walk, unless you’ve got a dog.

In Spain you can only go out for vital supplies
In Spain you can only go out for vital supplies

Monday 16 March

No socialising, no going out, no golf, no sport on TV. A vision of our dystopian future was beginning to emerge.

It matches the growing anxiety here in Spain at the accelerating damage being inflicted by the virus.

Infections and fatalities were edging closer to us.

We realise the containment makes sense, however harsh it seems, but are surprised at how the UK government seems far more relaxed and less prescriptive about counter-measures.

Surely viruses don’t have a special respect for island nations?

Desperate to go out and just do anything, I drive to the shops to stock up on some essential supplies. There’s a lengthy queue outside our local convenience store.

The masked and gloved staff are allowing one customer in as another leaves. It’s slow going. But enough for food for a few meals.

My wife is calling it day two in the Big Brother House. I think maybe it should be the Big Virus House.

Members of the Military Emergency Unit leave an elderly home in Madrid after carrying out disinfection procedures
Members of the Military Emergency Unit leave an elderly home in Madrid after carrying out disinfection procedures

Tuesday 17 March

St Patrick’s Day.

We’ve come down to Spain to celebrate a close friend’s birthday today, a long-held tradition among our crowd.

She’s Irish and today she has to manage without us and all her other family and friends.

I’m able to hand over a present and a card to her husband in a shop car park, very carefully, two metres away, of course.

Other than that we’re reduced to singing “Happy Birthday” over the phone.

Many other Irish pals at our golf club are left to toast this most unusual St Paddy’s Day of their lives alone, weeping green tears and slurping their dwindling stocks of Guinness.

Box sets and Netflix are already taking a hammering.

Spain's military install a tent hospital in the underground parking lot of a hospital in Oviedo
Spain’s military install a tent hospital in the underground parking lot of a hospital in Oviedo

Wednesday 18 March

We’re starting to grow anxious about getting back to the UK.

We have a flight booked tomorrow on Norwegian Air from Malaga to Gatwick, but Jet2 has just announced it is suspending flights to Spain and I can see from my flying app that more flights are being cancelled by the minute.

But what sort of a country am I trying to fly back to? I’m hearing Boris Johnson say that all of us over 70 may have to stay inside for 12 weeks.

Talk about “herd immunity”, this is more like herd indignity. But I guess I understand.

After all it’s hard to means test vulnerability, so the government is obliged to generalise to protect as many of its citizens as possible.

I manage to book in for tomorrow’s flight online. A sigh of relief. Looks like we’ll get out. Not that I mind being in Spain at all, but home always seems more comforting in a crisis.

The streets are deserted in Madrid
The streets are deserted in Madrid

Thursday 19 March

The queue for security at Malaga Airport is a bit like that scene from the bar in Star Wars. People are wearing any face mask they can lay their hands on, while others are swathed in scarves, hats and hankies.

Even I’m wearing some plastic gloves I picked up at the petrol station on the way to the airport.

Everyone is shoving as usual, but somehow managing to keep a metre between them, while eyeing each other like they’re aliens. It is the weirdest of atmospheres.

The slightest cough and the queue splinters in suspicion and censure.

Finally we make it on board, after hearing the Norwegian government has just bailed out the airline.

Phew! We’re good to go – and it looks like this could be one of the last flights out of Malaga.

We’re home in London in time for another birthday, wishing son James all the best via FaceTime. It looks like being the future of socialising, for a long time to come.

After dinner we are already discussing rationing TV and streaming programmes so we don’t devour them too quickly.

An eerily quiet Gatwick airport
An eerily quiet Gatwick airport

Friday 20 March

I’ve just seen Stuart Ramsay’s powerful report on Sky News from a hospital in the Italian city of Bergamo.

If you’re in any doubt about how dangerous this virus is you won’t be after watching this footage.

As Stuart says: “It’s just plain scary.”

Corridors crammed with gurneys, patients gasping for air, hospital staff almost at their wit’s end. It’s harrowing stuff. I vow to be even more careful.

Sky's Stuart Ramsay was invited in to the scale of the crisis

At the centre of the COVID-19 crisis

But as a fit and active 70+ I’m still feeling a bit put upon about putting my life on hold indefinitely.

I decide to do even more exercise. Our gym is about to be shutdown, so it’s another video pilates session with caring Caity from Australia for me and then off for a seven-mile walk.

Bushy Park in south west London is positively crowded, way more than the usual joggers and walkers. Of course, schools are shutting – that’s why there are so many kids about.

The youngsters seem happy enough to be out of the classroom, the parents already look harassed, and everyone is keeping a respectful distance.

I try smiling at passing walkers. The response is largely wary. A large herd of deer look on curiously at this human distancing.

I walk past the stone in Bushy Park that marks the wartime HQ of SHAEF, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, where General Dwight Eisenhower and his British military counterparts planned the D-Day invasion. I wonder if we’ll summon up the same levels of resilience and resourcefulness, a Blitz spirit, as Britain fights this new foe, this invisible enemy.

COVID-19: Inside the world's most dangerous city

‘There is sadness everywhere’

Saturday 21 March

WhatsApped a doctor friend in South Africa, who’s put the fear of god into us.

He’s following virus developments in great detail on The Lancet and Harvard Medical websites.

His conclusion is that the pandemic damage could be a lot worse than we’re being told. And the impact could go on a great deal longer. Sounds like we could be stuck in stasis for a year, or at least until a viable vaccine is developed and produced in global quantity.

London's Royal Parks are closed to vehicles
London’s Royal Parks are closed to vehicles

Though the good doctor has passed on some useful tips developed through research in the worst affected areas of China, such as shower or bath every time you come in from the street, and try to wash your clothes daily.

We’re making these tips part of our self-isolation regime.

Boris Johnson finally announces nationwide lockdown measures, with pubs, bars and restaurants told to shut.

Having witnessed this happening in Spain a full week ago, there’s a feeling our wannabe Churchill may have left it a touch late.

This thought is amplified by a doctor friend, with years of experience in London A&E units, who warns that the first real viral storm in the UK will hit at the end of next week.

Watch the PM’s address to the nation

Sunday 22 March

One positive note from the crisis is that we’re more in touch with friends from around the globe.

Our neighbours from 30 years ago in Hong Kong, when I was based there as ITN Asia correspondent, describe running a China trade business from the sitting room, trying to keep 150 staff across China busy and motivated.

With borders closed, no flights, quarantine restrictions rigidly enforced by police and army and Beijing government attacks on VPNs and comms links, it all sounds like a logistics nightmare.

I enquire if Hong Kong is preferable to their more recent quiet life in mid-Surrey.

“Well, we’ve had nine months of protests, we’ve been teargassed and shot at and now we’re being locked down,” explains our pal. “So you’ve got to be pretty resilient to live in Hong Kong. Still, where else do you get this much excitement?!”

A female friend in Cape Town sent us an amusingly staged photo of a mum trying to work from home with her kids gagged and bound on the floor. I’m told they had fun rigging it up. But seriously she’s desperately worried about the wider consequences for Africa.

“I dread corona spreading into the townships. How the hell do you isolate with 10 people living in a shack? How do you wash hands with no running water?”

Another South African mate tells me he’s flown his son home from university in the USA because the infection was spreading there. He’s also trying to cope with a sports business in lockdown. The economic ramifications around the world hardly bear thinking about.

Though right now most people just seem to be concentrating on staying healthy.

The parks and paths around our home are packed – a stark contrast to those eerie live pictures beamed back from the Sky News helicopter over Central London, showing iconic places like Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square looking as forlorn and desolate as any of us have seen in our lifetimes.

Under the curbs on movement, people should leave their homes only for very limited reasons only

Lockdown: Driving through London’s empty streets

Monday 23 March


We escape to our nearest park for a long walk – just in case it’s our last for a while. The gates are now closed to vehicles. How long until they stop walkers, joggers and cyclists?

A total lockdown feels imminent, probably the only way to slow the deadly contagion.

For a couple of hours though, we enjoy the sights and sounds of nature: the first buds of spring, a skylark singing overhead, a woodpecker drilling a tree hole ready for nesting. It almost feels normal until we have to dodge round oncoming walkers with a clear two-metre gap.

Even in the open air there’s a strange mood of suspicion. People are avoiding eye contact as they pass, as if just looking could transmit the virus. There’s a tragic loss of trust. We view everyone like they could be carriers. No one knows. It’s like all of humanity has been weaponised with a killer contagion.

Stopping off for supplies at our local M&S, it seems the public is split between scarf-wrapped, breath-holding “distancers”, desperately hugging the walls to stay clear of fellow humans, and “space invaders”, who jostle at the checkout like they’ve either forgotten the social guidelines or are just plain selfish.

Looking out from home across the Thames towards Richmond, the flightpath into Heathrow, usually streaming in at one plane every 90 seconds, has dwindled to a few.

The skies are clearer and with the roads nearly deserted, it seems the planet’s lungs are getting a much-needed breather from carbon emissions, even if the lungs of its population have never been at greater risk.

London was virtually deserted at rush hour as the UK wide lockdown continued

London virtually deserted at rush hour

Tuesday 24 March

The end of freedom.

The first day of the toughest restrictions on us Britons in peacetime. It comes a full 10 days after we witnessed the state of alarm lockdown in Spain. Let’s hope this hasn’t come too late for our over-stretched health services. The pandemic is clearly accelerating around the globe.

I ring my elderly aunt to wish her happy birthday. She’s seeing out her days at a residential home somewhat ironically called Sunrise.

She’s 98 today and has lost none of her spark. She tells me she’s “rather angry” that the virus has prevented her living life to the full, adding, “I’d like to punch this plague on the nose”.

That’s the spirit! We’re going to need just that sort of fighting talk to counter corona.

I’ve had an irritating cough for a couple of days now and hoping to hell it’s nothing more.

It’s easy to get health-obsessed in these unsettling times.

Two former Sky colleagues have reported symptoms. This virus sounds ugly. Fever, the sweats, aches, no energy, no appetite. Thank goodness they appear to be on the mend.

But it confirms our view that self-isolation is the only sensible option.