Two members of the Socialist Party in London fell ill after returning from a holiday in Italy. Below they describe their experience of self-isolation.

Coronavirus   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

The outbreak of Covid-19 in northern Italy took place during our short holiday in Rome. On arrival in Italy, all the passengers on our flight from London were individually screened in front of a video camera that appeared to register body temperature. (We were later told by a health expert that this is mainly to give “assurance” that something is being done and has little real benefit.)

Over the next few days, we saw many people in Rome, mainly tourists, wearing face masks. (It is reported that most commercially produced masks are not sufficient to prevent infection.) But as is now widely known, washing hands and general personal hygiene are essential in the battle against coronavirus.

Given this, we were shocked that many public toilets, at tourist destinations and in cafes and restaurants, were in a poor state. Along with thousands, we visited the Coliseum and found a public toilet without any sort of handwash. The deterioration of public hygiene facilities does not just apply to Italy – in Britain, council cuts mean public toilets have closed or worsened over many years.

On our return to London, we were not met by any government department and given health advice at the airport, despite the number of cases climbing steadily in Italy. After a couple of days, both of us showed flu-like symptoms.

Neither of us belongs to the categories which make the virus more likely to be life-threatening. Nevertheless, we felt it was important for the health of others that we immediately dialled the NHS 111 line.

NHS struggling

The phone staff, who were not medical professionals, were friendly but obviously very busy and told to stick to a script. We were advised that the virus was only affecting northern Italy and that we should treat our symptoms as we would a usual cold or flu and go about our normal business. We decided ourselves to stay away from our workplaces until our illness had passed.

On 6 March, the government’s advice abruptly changed. Anyone who had travelled from anywhere in Italy over the previous 14 days, and showed flu symptoms, was told to contact NHS 111. After several phone consultations, and eventually one with a nurse, we were given appointments for the next day to have swabs taken.

A medic could arrange to make a house call, but clearly they preferred we went by car to a coronavirus testing ‘pod’. Given leaving the house is more likely to spread infection, it would seem cuts to the NHS means there are not enough staff to make all the necessary house calls at this stage.

The next morning, we drove to the pod – a small marquee on the grounds of a local community hospital – getting some bemused but also hostile stares from passers-by. We were the only people awaiting testing, though the nurse told us they expected numbers to rise greatly in the coming days.

In our poor part of east London, which is hugely overcrowded and has a creaking infrastructure after years of deep cuts, the rapid spread of coronavirus must be a real danger.

We are now awaiting, for up to three days, the results of the test. We were told to self-isolate but given contradictory verbal advice about the timescale – and the printed advice sheets do not even mention self-isolation. We are not overly worried about our health but we are concerned that we do not pass on the virus, if we have it, to more vulnerable family members, friends and work colleagues.

Our experiences show the NHS and other government agencies under the Tories are not up to dealing with this crisis as they would be if proper funding and training was in place.