How work in Britain has been changed by coronavirus

From an actor in The Archers and an epidemiologist to a delivery driver, ten people from across the country tell us how they have adapted to the pandemic.

Everyone’s life has been changed by the pandemic, whether you’re a doctor on the front line or a Tube driver serving empty platforms. In the first of a monthly series we introduce ten people we’ll be following to see how their work has changed under lockdown.

The delivery driver: ‘Being valued — that’s a great feeling’ Dave Bailey, 27, is a haulier in Birmingham “In the past three weeks the number of nights I’ve spent at home in my own bed can pretty much be counted on one hand. Since the lockdown began, it’s been go go go. I’m working flat out.

“Ordinarily I’d be doing shifts of between nine and 12 hours, but now it’s anything up to 15 hours a day. Most nights you’ll just try and catch some sleep in the back of the cab wherever and whenever you can, with warm meals a rarity as services have all closed down their food courts.

“As a general haulage driver for a company called Onpoint, I carry all sorts of things, here, there and everywhere. Now I’m delivering essential food items for Morrisons and Asda as well as PPE equipment for the NHS.

“After the announcement that the Excel centre would be turned into an enormous field hospital, we were sub-contracted to deliver medical supplies. Myself and four other lorries delivered 15 tonnes of PPE down to the capital. It was all arranged in such a rush that we didn’t even have paperwork to prove who we were or what we had brought.

“Seeing that kilometre-long conference hall being readied for the arrival of thousands of ill or dying people was a game-changer for me.

“As a truck driver you spend about 90 per cent of your time in isolation anyway and I had been quite relaxed about coronavirus. But I was just shell-shocked by what I saw. I drove back to Birmingham that day without putting on any music in the cab, and afterwards told my boss that I would do the job for free.

“The government has relaxed laws that restrict lorry drivers’ working hours, enabling us to work for an additional four hours each week. Each driver now also carries an official letter issued by the government that gives us permission to be on the road as an essential worker.

“It’s long hours and you’re away from home for long periods of time, but I feel a real pride and responsibility in what I’m doing.

“Usually, everybody hates truck drivers. We are the bane of public life — these great big, slow-moving vehicles that slow down the traffic for everyone else.

“But since all this started, I’ve noticed people’s attitudes change towards us. There is more courtesy and respect.

“Sometimes you even see people standing on motorway bridges applauding us. Being valued — that’s a great feeling.”

The junior doctor: ‘I’m not doing heroics, I’m just doing my job’ Conor O’Malley, 30, is a junior doctor working in intensive care at a hospital in east London

“I’ve gone from never having experience of ventilated care to being the junior doctor responsible for eight ventilated patients.

“Something that’s been emotionally quite tough is that patients’ relatives can’t come to the ward. I recently had a Covid-19 patient who rapidly deteriorated and I had to call his family to tell them he was going to die. They wanted to speak to him — obviously he was asleep on the medications we’d given him — but I brought the phone over on speaker and held it to his ear for the family to say goodbye. That was really, really hard. I was standing there, part of a conversation that is usually so intimate, which was emotionally quite difficult.

“PPE is really physically hard to work in. The other day I missed lunch and was having to put a line into a patient’s neck while wearing double PPE to keep the area sterile. I had on: four pairs of gloves, two gowns, a mask, a visor and hat. I was so sweaty my fingers were slipping and I had to hand the procedure over to my colleague because I almost fainted. PPE makes you hot — it hurts your nose, your chin, it’s just uncomfortable.

“Since the pandemic started I’ve had friends texting me saying “Keep going you’re a hero”, but the hero label makes me feel uneasy. Yes my job is harder and yes it’s much more stressful, but I don’t feel like I’m doing heroics, I’m just doing my job.

“Personally I’m not really worried about catching the virus. I’m 30, fit and well. I can put my doctor head on and see that the chances of me getting seriously ill from this are slim — so I can rationalise that quite well. Obviously I don’t want to get it, but part of me would like to have had it to get it out of the way.

“PPE is really physically hard to work in. The other day I missed lunch and was having to put a line into a patient’s neck while wearing double PPE to keep the area sterile. I had on: four pairs of gloves, two gowns, a mask, a visor and hat. I was so sweaty my fingers were slipping and I had to hand the procedure over to my colleague because I almost fainted. PPE makes you hot — it hurts your nose, your chin, it’s just uncomfortable.

“Since the pandemic started I’ve had friends texting me saying “Keep going you’re a hero”, but the hero label makes me feel uneasy. Yes my job is harder and yes it’s much more stressful, but I don’t feel like I’m doing heroics, I’m just doing my job.

“Personally I’m not really worried about catching the virus. I’m 30, fit and well. I can put my doctor head on and see that the chances of me getting seriously ill from this are slim — so I can rationalise that quite well. Obviously I don’t want to get it, but part of me would like to have had it to get it out of the way.

The Covid-19 researcher: ‘I’ve never worked so hard in my life’ Juliette Unwin, 28, is research fellow at Imperial College London and works as a disease modeller on Covid-19, calculating how fast the virus spreads

“Each morning when I get up, the first thing I do is look at the results from the simulations I’ve had running overnight. I look to see what the numbers are and check the model has performed as expected.

“I am trying to model what happens to a number called “Rt”. This is a measure of disease transmission over time. Right now we are extending the analysis to the United States and trying to predict the effect of interventions on each state.

“Initial runs of simulations need careful interpretation. You model putting in all interventions and Rt goes up. That will be a coding error. The numbers then need to be checked for consistency with other academic groups. It is the weight of many strands of evidence that is important. Together we carefully check our models to provide the best possible estimates that are driven by what the data tells us.

“These days eyes are focused on modellers, and everyone wants to hear the latest. The truth is, I only know as much as the data tells me!

“I came to disease modelling from engineering, where I had studied ways of factoring in uncertainty in big engineering projects.

“When I started to work in the department, I was part of a team responding to the ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That gave me a little insight into dealing with disease outbreaks in real time. I had naively thought that that would be the job. I never thought I would be working on something at this scale that affects the whole world.

“Like everyone, we work from home — and it’s very collaborative: none of us are islands. I spend the day chatting to colleagues, speaking to people involved in collecting the data, and trying to improve the model. Each of us has their own little part. Then at 4pm we get together online to discuss the day.

“I’m grateful that my partner works in a data science startup. He helps me with any tech problems in the evening.

“I feel so lucky and fortunate that I can do something to help. Sometimes in academia you don’t really know how it’s going to contribute. We’re stuck inside, but it’s really nice to be able to do a job that feels useful. I’ve never worked so hard in my life!” (Speaking to Tom Whipple)

The Archers actor: ‘It’s a real honour to still be working’ James Cartwright, 35, plays PC Harrison Burns in The Archers. The Radio 4 soap has cut down from five to four episodes a week, with the cast recording their lines at home

“It’s a strange time for actors. First they closed the theatres, then they closed the film sets, finally they closed the pubs . But The Archers kept going, it’s the last show in town. Everyone from the editor to the scriptwriters has dedicated themselves to making this work, because it’s important to people.

“There have been a lot of sleepless nights, and back-and-forth within the BBC. What they’ve come up with is to send us all packs, with a microphone and device for muffling sound. Sound in The Archers has to be “dead” — it’s not actually recorded in a barn or in a field. They do it completely clean, then add the effects, surroundings and birds and tractors. We will be recording it from home on our computers, because the show must go on.

“The cast are staying in contact over WhatsApp. It’s very tame, trading lemon drizzle recipes and positive messages. The thing with The Archers is that it’s like a giant family. I’ve got an on-screen wife, and on-screen mother-in-law. When you spend so much time together — I’ve been in the show five or six years now — it’s unlike any other job you’ll ever do, because you really grow to love these people. You see them get married and have babies; all that life journey, you feel invested in it.

“It’s a real honour to still be working. For all self-employed people, of which actors are just one profession, it is difficult. The thing with acting is momentum — you go from a job to a job, and someone sees you in that. But now everything has just flatlined. And most of us don’t earn a lot of money. Any measures to help, like three months pay at 80 per cent — if your earnings are £12,000 a year, or whatever, it’s not a huge amount. So people are worried.

“We don’t have the importance of a nurse or a doctor or someone working in the NHS. No one has ever called an actor at 2am and said: “Come into work, it’s an emergency.” We aren’t saving lives, but I hope in some small way we are saving minds.

“If there was a nuclear apocalypse I’d put my money on there being a bunker somewhere, filled with the government, a skeletal BBC News crew and the cast of The Archers, with our editor Jeremy Howe wondering whether we mention it in the show or not.” (Speaking to Matthew Moore)

The corner shop manager: ‘The level of abuse has been testing’ Jacqui Dales, 50, manages a corner shop near Boston, Lincolnshire

“We’re coping very well. It has been very hard. Yesterday I had a younger member of staff in her twenties sworn at three times in four hours. We had to take steps to protect them or else we’ll have to close the store.

“A lot of customers don’t seem to want social distancing — we have squares on the floor but it didn’t work. It wasn’t everybody but enough people.

“The level of abuse has been really testing. Everybody is quite stressed at the moment and their routines are all out and it’s taken out on the person in front of you. Life isn’t normal for anyone.

“Customers don’t go around the shop at all now. My team are going around for the customers. We’re only 100 square feet. To fit any more than five with staff is too busy. For our safety we decided to maintain a bit of the store just for us.

“The biggest difference is that it goes against all our selling experience. We make it harder for people to shop, it goes against the grain completely.

“There has been a 40 per cent reduction in food-to-go sales such as sandwiches. Looking at the other side, grocery sales are 180 per cent up. People are now doing a full shop with us. We’re a mile and a half from the nearest supermarket. We’ve ordered lots of new things — our customers have never been really exotic but now they’re asking for avocados and mangetout, things they would have got from the supermarkets before. We’ve still got our older customers who want custard powder.

“We have also started doing deliveries, which are really rewarding — there are a lot of isolated people out there. We get a wave through the window or through the door. They’re so appreciative. We’re in quite a rural area so we have been delivering to people who are cut off from anyone else — you think, who else would go that far? The feedback is very positive.” (Speaking to Harry Shukman)

The Tube driver: ‘Empty platforms are becoming the new normal’ Mike Reid, 47, from Milton Keynes, is a driver on the London Underground’s Jubilee line

“Remember the song Ghost Town? That’s what’s going around our heads at the moment when we operate trains through London.

“It is almost like 90 per cent of the passengers have forgotten to come into work. If you imagine a Jubilee line train holds between 800 and 900 people, the morning peak is possibly 10 per cent of that.

“Normally if you get to a station such as Baker Street and Bond Street and you see the platform empty, the immediate thought is: “Is the station closed and I simply haven’t heard it on my radio?” But this is becoming the new normal. Apart from very early in the morning when there’s a bit of traffic, it’s generally empty.

“There are precautions. Our trains are regularly cleaned and our colleagues are doing a brilliant job to ensure that’s done effectively. I don’t wear a face mask — some of my colleagues do; cycling masks seem to be quite popular — but the difference between a train operator and a bus driver is that we aren’t customer-facing. My colleagues on the stations are at a greater risk than I am; they are the ones on the gate line, in the ticket halls and on platforms.

“Yes, there is a risk for drivers. Unlike an aircraft, I don’t have a cabin crew or a co-pilot so if there’s a problem on my train I have to deal with it, but it’s at times like this that our safety training kicks in.

“For example, when we reach the terminus we can get people who are asleep in their seat. I have to wake them up but I do it at a safe distance. We never shake someone awake — which is technically assault anyway — so I have got a whistle in my pocket that I use.

“The company is also doing its best to enforce social distancing. There are posters everywhere saying “keep two metres apart” and we’ve got sticky vinyl on the platforms showing what 2m looks like. But not everyone can change the habits of a lifetime overnight. It’s difficult when people are in commute-mode.

“The fact is that people are being urged not to travel at peak times and they need to listen to those warnings, not least to give key workers space.

“A lot of key workers are getting into London now using Transport for London services.

“Outside work, I’m a single bloke so only have myself to think about. But every day I speak to my elderly mother who has cardiac, diabetes and thyroid problems and ask if she needs any shopping. So I will go and leave a bag full on her doorstep, but because I work in London I can’t give her a hug; that would put her at risk. It’s the new normal.” (Speaking to Graeme Paton)

The teacher: ‘The students are really missing school’ Alicia Corley, 33, is vice-principal at Harris Academy Sutton

“First thing in the morning I check that our virtual school is working and everything is set so teachers and pupils can get on with their lessons. There are no live lessons. The school took a decision to allow pupils to access their lessons at any time of the day as we knew not every child has a laptop, and not every child has a private space to sit and work for an hour at a time. We didn’t want to put even more pressure on families and pupils.

“Where families have no laptops pupils can borrow them from the school, which has also provided dongles for those with poor or no wifi.

“The school is only in its second year of operation, so we only have Year 7 and 8 pupils. They are really missing school. Some feel quite overwhelmed by how much they miss it. They miss their friends, their snacks at break, playing at lunchtime, the variety of the school day and even their teachers.

“We are trying to do as much audio from staff as we can, and getting teachers to post videos of themselves speaking from home. We are trying to maintain the close school community, so we have a weekly assembly on YouTube, a newsletter where we can show off students’ work and wish happy birthday to those who are having their birthdays at home. Parents and kids have been amazing, sending in examples of their work, photos of them doing PE lessons and sitting at their desk studying.

“Form tutors are phoning each family once a week to check on pupils, and more regularly than that if they are disadvantaged, have special needs or if there are safeguarding issues.

“The school is still open for children of key workers, the vulnerable and those with special educational needs. It is a shorter school day of 9am to 2pm and has been open throughout the Easter holidays. With 11 and 12-year-olds social distancing can be a bit of a challenge. When they arrive they wash their hands then go to their work stations, which are two metres apart. We are using the library and the art room, which is twice as big as a normal classroom.

“We are also trying to make sure they are getting off their screens so every day we have either PE, drama, dance or music to get them moving around. They often play table tennis at break and lunch, which is great because it means they can keep 2 metres apart.

“This is a personal challenge as well as a professional one. Teachers go into this career because they like spending time with others, and young people in particular. Suddenly it’s all got a bit abstract.

“I worry about the children, that they will have forgotten how to do a normal day when this is over, but we can cross that bridge if we come to it. This is not the only difficult time they will experience, so if we can help them through this and build their resilience it could help them throughout their lives.” (Speaking to Rosemary Bennett)

The police officer: ‘Patrolling lockdown left me with an odd feeling’ Simon Ellson is neighbourhood inspector for the Cotswold district — a 450-square-mile area made up mostly of rural communities

“The first time I left the station to patrol the lockdown left me with an odd feeling. It was like driving around a film set — there was literally nobody about. It was eerily quiet in Cirencester town centre at lunchtime and the only noise I heard was from my police radio. I took a picture and when I sent it to my family Whatsapp group my mum replied: “I hope you look after yourself.”

“I’ve been a police officer for 20 years and thought I had seen and heard most things, but this was different. The first person I politely asked why they were out was a middle aged lady — not sure why I even chose her — and it felt really uncomfortable for both of us. “I’m off to work in the bank,” she said and we both smiled and went our separate ways.

“This made me think that with my wife and two children isolating safely at home the only way they will become ill is if I pass something on to them — a sobering thought. Most police have families and most live in or close to where they work.

“With each day on patrol the uncomfortable feeling eases and 99 per cent of people are lovely and supportive. The good people of the Cotswolds expect us to be on patrol but we police by consent, and asking law abiding citizens why they are out and advising them to do the right thing doesn’t come easily.

“We are still encouraging and advising people at the moment, no enforcement yet. This time will come but I’m confident with the goodwill we have locally this won’t be too problematic.” (Speaking to John Simpson)

The estate agent: ‘We’ve started making virtual valuations through videocalls’ Becki Clarke, 35, is an estate agent in Lichfield, Staffordshire

“Challenging is the word that comes to my mind when friends ask me how it’s going. But I’m battling on, looking after both my clients and my family.

“My day is a mix of the two. I switch on my laptop at about 7:30am. At 10am I do a Joe Wicks workout with my two boys, who are four and seven. Back to work till midday. I then do lunch for the boys and my husband. We’ve recently separated but he’s isolating with us and he’s working from home too. After lunch I take a couple of hours to do some home schooling — the boys prefer to do that with mum. Then back to work again.

“But busy is good, I love my job. I’ve been working as an estate agent for 17 years and I’ve been with Hunters since 2003. I manage a team of 17 people and we look after almost 900 properties across the West Midlands. If tenants struggle to pay the rent or a boiler breaks down, they’ll call us. Landlords and tenants appreciate that we’re getting in touch and finding the time to chat these days. One positive aspect to this situation is that it has got people closer to each other. We’re all in the same boat.

“Because we can’t visit properties anymore, we’ve started making virtual valuations through videocalls or asking landlords and tenants to take pictures and videos of the properties.

“Despite the lockdown there are people out there that still need to move. We’re focusing on key workers, NHS staff in particular. Some of them live with vulnerable people and are not able to go back home so they need short-term lets near their work. I was moved to see so many landlords offering reduced rents — clearly the community wants to give something back.

“I’m proud of how my team has been pulling together. We’ve managed to secure 14 lettings in two weeks, just by doing virtual viewings — half of them to key workers. The sale market, on the other hand, is completely frozen because people don’t want to buy just on videos and photos.

“My workday finishes between 5pm and 6pm. But then of course it’s like feeding time at the zoo. The kids are still at an age when they need entertaining. They generally play nicely together but it quite often can end in tears. I’m so thankful that it’s sunny and they can stay in the garden, otherwise I wouldn’t know what to do. They miss their friends though — and so do I.” (Speaking to Emanuele Midolo)

The hotel manager: ‘I’ve never seen anything like this – no one has’ Stewart Davies, 41 is the chief operating officer at two hotels in Manchester: Hotel Football and the Stock Exchange. Both have stayed open for NHS staff to use free of charge

“I’ve been with the company for nearly seven years now and have always worked in the hospitality industry. This is all unprecedented — I’ve never seen anything like this, but I don’t think anyone has. It is obviously a very different place, but it feels very positive.

“An online personal training programme has been put on for staff across the business, which I’ve been doing on my own in the hotel every morning. It is very tough, but has hopefully been keeping me fit and healthy! In some ways my day has stayed very much the same.

“The biggest part of my role is making sure that the guests and team on the ground are taken care of. Everybody working in the hotels at the moment, myself included, is there as a volunteer because we want to be. In both hotels we have been very conscious of social distancing, so dining is a bit like a “grab and go”, which revolves throughout the day.

“We’ve put in microwaves and toasters, so guests can come down whenever they want to heat up a meal that we have prepared, have a bowl of cornflakes — or just grab a bag of crisps. We spend a lot of time chatting with the NHS staff. They like talking to the hotel team here, and being in the hotel industry, we like to listen. One of the biggest challenges is keeping spirits up and ensuring everyone has what they need.

“We’ve had a male nurse with three young boys and one of them had a birthday this week. It was obviously very tough for him, being away from his family at that time. When we were chatting, he mentioned how his son was a big football fan, so we got Gary Lineker to do a little birthday video for him.

“Mother’s Day was in the first week of lockdown. We had a couple of mums who were away from their children to be in the hotel, so we bought them some plants to put in their rooms.

“Juggling family life hasn’t been a big problem for me as hours in the hotel industry are known for being long and tough. I genuinely see this as just doing my job. I have two little girls who are being home-schooled by my wife at the moment, and I’m spending time with them after I get home. They understand the role I’m doing, so I hope there is a sense of pride from them.” (Speaking to Charlotte Wace)

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