Like millions of others around the world, Gulf News Foreign Correspondent Mick O’Reilly is currently under Covid-19 lockdown. This is what life is like in social isolation in Ireland, where there are strict rules about who is allowed out, where, and under limited circumstances.
Sunday May 10, 9am
IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE?
‘WE’RE NOT IN THE SAME BOAT – BUT WE ARE GOING THROUGH THE SAME STORM’
Bono and I have little in common – but we are both turning 60 this year. Happy birthday, Bono, who enters his seventh decade on Sunday. Me? It’s in late September.
Our paths did cross about 40 years ago – in Dublin, when I was in university and he and his band were trying to make it big. I was on a committee that booked bands to play lunchtime gigs. We booked them, the fee was £100, we charged £1 entry, the theatre could hold £300. Forty-eight people came, and I still technically owe Bono and U2 £52. A true story – which goes to show how much I knew then about entertainment.
But since then our paths have gone different directions – or as the American poet Robert Frost would write: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both”.
We all go our own paths in life. But because it’s Bono’s 60th birthday, he did give a rare live interview to Irish broadcaster RTE on the Ryan Turbidy show.
But how true was his comment on Covid-19 and the disruption it has wrought: “We’re not all in the same boat, but we are going through the same storm”.
WORLD NEEDS TO THINK DIFFERENTLY
Bono said he thinks the world needs to “think differently” after the Covid-19 pandemic and that “a new politics” has got to come in it.
In a lengthy and personal interview, the U2 front man said he wanted to “thank the country for putting up with my sometimes-avuncular self”.
“I’m pretty meditative and reflective now and just giving thanks, really,” he said as he spoke about his work in helping to fight the Aids crisis in Africa and how he attempted to bring that experience to the current pandemic.
He was asked about U2 donating €10 million as part of efforts to help secure personal protective equipment for hospital and home care staff in Ireland.
“I got a call from Paschal Donohoe the Finance Minister, just talking about how I could contribute. And I thought, well, probably the best thing is figuring out how this PPE procurement would work out,” Bono said.
“The band are a little funny about public philanthropy because in the end, it’s part self-promotion. So, we’ve just, we’ve always been wary of it, we’re not very American in that sense. But we wanted to do something serious and show solidarity with the frontline medics, but not just the carers but everybody who’s out there. t’s like the Raiders of the Lost PPE out there, it’s a really extraordinary market out there. And people are getting just pushed out of the way and countries are being pushed out of the way by all manner of vendors. And I just thought, well, this is what we can do,” Bono said.
20 MILLION MASKS
The band is well on its way to getting 20 million masks and other equipment –300,000 masks, goggles. And 30,000 gowns. “It’s a small contribution in truth,” Bono said.
Speaking about his time dealing with lockdown in Dublin, Bono said that he is “spoiled” by the “magnificent view” from his house but that he has been thinking about people who are less fortunate.
“You know, it’s like we’re not all in the same boat, but we are going through the same storm,” Bono told the programme.
Speaking about those working in the healthcare sector, Bono described their efforts as “a different level of courage”.
“I hope one of the things that will have changed about it is, you know, that our view of who are the most important people in our workforce,” he mused. “And it’s not even just those nurses, doctors and care workers, it’s the taxi drivers who go in there, it’s the people stacking the shelves. I mean, it’s turned things kind of upside down. And I am grateful for that, I think everything is going to be new. And we need to think differently.”
During his activism Bono has famously, or infamously depending on your point of view, been on speaking terms with US presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama.
Bono has said he has not met President Donald Trump but has been dealing with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on the response to Covid-19 in Africa, describing him as “very courteous”
I guess that since our paths crossed so long ago, he’s done ok for himself and the band. And yes, he hasn’t forgotten everyone else sailing this storm.
THE EASING OF LOCKDOWNS ACROSS THE EU
I am now in my sixth week of restrictions on my movement in Ireland. Here, right now, I can only exercise 2 kilometres from my home and limit my movement to shopping, which I do once a week to the nearby town of Wexford.
Come May 18, that 2km limit will be expanded to 5kms, and hardware stores will begin to re-open while construction work will be allowed – as long as social distancing can be ensured.
The government has laid down a very clear five-stage re-opening plan, with each stage three weeks apart and will be put on hold or reversed back a stage if conditions are not met and there are signs of an increased rate of infection.
I cannot wait to be able to travel to my other home in Spain. There’ the lockdown has been the strictest across Europe and, if anything, I am grateful that my lockdown had to happen in Ireland and not Spain. I have many friends there who have been fined. Some have changed to – they are now paranoid about coming in contact with anyone even though the restrictions of movement have been generally lifted and life is getting back to a sense of normalcy. But who knows what the new normal is, and I wonder too if my friends will ever again be “normal”?
EUROPE MOVE FORWARD, UK STEPS BACK
The signs really are positive for most of Europe that things are moving in the right direction – everywhere it seems EXCEPT in the UK.
According to news reports, air passengers arriving in Britain will soon have to quarantine for a fortnight as part of a move to avoid a second peak of the coronavirus.
Airlines UK, the trade body for UK registered airlines, has confirmed to Sky News that the move will be introduced by the government for anyone arriving into the UK other than from Ireland, to ease the spread of Covid-19.
But this seems very late. Why didn’t it happen at the start of the lockdown restrictions imposed six weeks ago? But coming now, this seems to be like closing the stable door long after the horse has bolted.
JOHNSON TO LAY OUT UK ROADMAP
The announcement on travel is reportedly set to be made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he sets out a road map for easing the coronavirus lockdown in an address to Britons later on Sunday.
Under the measures, which are expected to come into force in June – and why not now, I ask – all passengers arriving at airports. That will include returning UK citizens, and all will have to provide an address where they will self-isolate for 14 days.
The report states that authorities will carry out spot checks, and those found breaking the rules face a fine of up to £1,000 or even deportation.
Naturally, both the aviation and tourism industry have warned such a move would be devastating for business, already hard hit by the impact of the pandemic.
At least travellers from Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man will be exempt, along with lorry drivers bringing in critical supplies.
The quarantine measures reflect those already introduced by other countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.
But coming now, this seems to be like closing the stable door long after the horse has bolted.
VALUABLE TIME LOST IN THE UK
Critics from various quarters charge that the UK government lost valuable time dithering before imposing a strict lockdown. During that dithering, it allowed a quarter of a million racing fans to gather at Cheltenham in early March. My family, for one, believes that the death of my first cousin, Frank, from coronavirus could have been if that was cancelled. The government’s own top scientific advisors had warned in early March that half a million Britons could die if the virus was unconstrained, and its warning was repeated more urgently March 16 by a research team at Imperial College in London.
Up to then, the thinking of the UK government was to allow for a natural culling of people through a herd response.
Even then, it took Johnson another full week to declare a lockdown — a delay that cost lives.
National Health Service staff were left short on personal protective equipment, care homes were abandoned as the virus spread there – and they remain stubborn hot spots even now as the UK’s death toll becomes the highest in Europe and second only to the US.
Early on in the outbreak, the UK government abandoned its coronavirus track-and-trace testing programme – one that Germany relies on to bring positive rates control.
Its testing regimen too is a shambles, and only on April 30 has it managed to reach its highly touted target of 100,000 tests.
But there will come a time, when this pandemic has passed, that the government there may be held to account. In the meantime, it can only look on from behinds its blinkered visors and masks as the rest of Europe opens up.
PLANNING A LONG-DISTANCE WALK
Being largely cooped up has made me itch to complete another long-distance walk across Spain.
In the Middle Ages, pilgrims would walk from their home countries across thousands of kilometres of dangerous territory to Santiago de Compostela, an old city in northwest Spain. There are many routes now that make up the Camino de Santiago, and I have walked three before, from Portugal, from the northern port of Ferrol – Camino de Ingles – and the Finistera route where man for thousands of years would look out and see the Sun sink in the Atlantic Ocean and wonder what was beyond.
So, I am planning a fourth, to follow the “Camino Primitivo” – the original walk – for some 320 kms from Basque country to Santiago. It should take me 14 days.
I will do it to think of how everything has changed, how a little pain makes you think, and as a reflection on life. I can’t wait. As soon as travel restrictions are lifted, I’ll finalise the arrangements. If anything, lockdown should have made us all think of what we really need now. And walking the camino means carrying it. I will fit all into a rucksack and carry about 8 kilograms – including my clothes, cables, tablet and phone.
It’s also a good opportunity to see how coronavirus has changed everything.
IGNORING PUBLIC HEALTH RULES
For two millennia, pilgrims have walked to Rome from across Christendom. Maybe I’ll do that next year, but Italy seems to be having a lot of issues trying to come out of its restrictive measures. On Friday, the mayor of Milan issued a furious threat to close down popular open spaces in the city after television footage showed crowds socialising and apparently ignoring public health rules aimed at preventing a resurgence of coronavirus.
Italy loosened some of the toughest lockdown restrictions in Europe last Monday, allowing many businesses to re-open and giving people more freedom to move about but authorities have insisted that strict social distancing measures must still be respected.
The rules have been widely respected, but several incidents have been reported of large groups of people, many not wearing protective masks, gathering in parks and other outdoor spaces, including the Navigli, Milan’s popular canal area.
“Yesterday’s images from along the Navigli were disgraceful,” Giuseppe Sala, the mayor of Milan, said in one of his regular online messages from his office. “Either things change today, or tomorrow I’ll be here in Palazzo Marino and I’ll pass measure to close the Navigli, I’ll stop takeaway services and then you can explain to the people who work in bars why the mayor isn’t allowing them to do business,” he said. “This isn’t a game, we can’t allow this in a city of 1.4 million inhabitants,” he said.
FRENCH BEGIN TASK OF OPENING UP
On Thursday, the French outlined their plans for getting things back up and running again, again in a gradual and targeted fashion beginning Monday.
“Next Monday will mark the start of a very gradual process stretching over several weeks at least, which will allow the country to emerge slowly but steadily from the lockdown,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said hours after it finalised its roadmap.
Philippe said the government was looking to “strike the right balance between the indispensable resumption of economic life and the indispensable need” to ensure the safety of the public. He said the exit from lockdown would be “differentiated”, with restrictions to be lifted gradually and varying between regions.
“The country is cut in two, with the virus circulating more quickly in some regions,” he explained.
The French PM unveiled an updated version of the government’s colour-coded map dividing the country between red zones, for high-infection areas, and green zones, where infections have been markedly lower. The map is designed to serve as a reference for lockdown easing measures.
“Some areas are still seeing an active circulation of the virus or a lot of pressure on hospitals. Those are classified as red areas,” Philippe said. “We will be ending the lockdown there, but some restrictions will remain in place: middle schools will remain closed, and so will parks and public gardens.”
EXTRA VIGILANCE IN PARIS REGION
Philippe said both the authorities and the public would have to remain “especially vigilant” in the densely populated Paris region, a red zone, “where the number of cases is going down but remains high – higher than we had hoped for.”
Beyond the Paris area, administrative regions around Calais, Strasbourg and Dijon will also remain classified as red zones.
As part of the phased exit from lockdown, primary schools and most businesses — though not cafes and restaurants — will be allowed to reopen as of May 11, both in red and green zones. In the latter zones, Philippe said secondary schools, cafes and restaurants may open from early June if the infection rate remains low.
The elderly and other vulnerable populations, including people with underlying medical conditions, will not be confined to their homes after May 11, the PM added, though he advised extreme caution.
“We trust people who know they are vulnerable to do what is necessary to stay safe,” he said.
The government has urged companies to ensure employees can continue working from home when possible and, if not, to introduce shift working to avoid transport congestion and ensure physical distancing.
FACE MASKS COMPULSORY
Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne said face masks would be compulsory on public transport for everyone aged 11 and above. Commuters travelling during rush hour in the Paris region will need to carry a document signed by their employer, she added.
In order to enforce social distancing measures, public transport providers will operate at around 50 per cent capacity from May 11, Borne said, adding that the government was hoping to reach full capacity by early June.
Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said children would begin returning to nursery and primary schools from Monday on a voluntary basis. Classes will be restricted to 15 pupils in primary schools and 10 in nursery schools.
Blanquer said roughly one million students would be heading back to classrooms next week, with priority given to the children of medical personnel and other key workers, and those with learning difficulties.
“All teachers will be back at school,” he added — a decision that is likely to anger the many teachers who have described the return to school as dangerously premature.
The coronavirus pandemic has killed some 26,000 people in France since March 1.
SWITZERLAND EASES CURBS
If you even have to take but one train trip in Europe, catch a train from Munich in southern Germany to Verona in northern Italy. It’s about a four-hour journey through Austria and some of the most incredible scenery in the world. And you can have lunch in Verona and be back in Munich for supper! Austria and Switzerland are stunning – and the walking there is fantastic too if you do feel inclined to put on a pair of hiking boots.
The Swiss are considering opening borders with neighbours, as the government there detailed the latest, step-by-step easing of limits enacted to contain coronavirus.
Bern also said it would test this month a voluntary contact tracing app for smartphones meant to alert people if they have been too near people who test positive for the coronavirus.
The system, part of the nation’s long-term strategy to contain Covid-19 and avoid being overwhelmed by a second wave, could go live once parliament addresses the measure in June.
As migration resumes, the government said initial steps include processing a backlog of applications from people seeking work in Switzerland. For Swiss citizens as well as for those from the European Union, family reunification in Switzerland should also be possible again, Bern said.
“The controls at the border will continue,” the government said. “Border crossings will be opened in consultation with the domestic and foreign partner authorities and communicated accordingly.”
After previously announcing that restaurants could open starting on Monday, Switzerland laid out rules to ensure customer and employee safety.
Among other things, waiters and guests will not be required to wear masks, even as kitchen personnel may have to. Only four people or parents with children are allowed at tables, which must two metres apart or separated by dividing walls.
SCHOOLS RE-OPENING IN THE NETHERLANDS
Last week, Belgium re-opened some of its schools in the first tentative steps of lifting the coronavirus restrictions. On Monday, May 11, the Dutch will follow suit.
Class sizes and school hours will be cut in half with students spending the other 50 per cent of their time doing “distance learning,” the government said.
But for those looking forward to returning to a more normal life, bars, restaurants, fitness clubs, museums, theatres and other such venues will all be closed until at least May 19.
Meanwhile, large scale events such as festivals and professional sporting events will be banned until at least September 1.
“Caution now is better than regret later,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte said, while secondary schools can begin preparing to reopen on June 2.
The Netherlands has had more than 34,000 positive coronavirus cases and nearly 4,000 deaths since the beginning of the epidemic.
MEME OF THE DAY
There’s another gem shared with me on Facebook by a friend, Dave, in Galway.
HOW I’M PRETENDING TO GROW £10,000 IN PLAY MONEY
There was no trading in London on Friday because of the VE bank holiday celebrations. Here’s a reminder of how my pretend portfolio stood at the end of trading on Thursday. I will adjust it later Sunday before trading opens on Monday.
Net worth £11,299.38
Diageo, 100 shares: £2778.00
Ocado, 100 shares: £1864.00
BT, 50 shares: £5247.50
PowerHouse 1,200 shares: £1,380
Cash in hand: £29.88
£ Gain loss: £372.00
% Gain overall: 11.3 per cent
£ Gain overall: £1,299.38
COVIDIOTS, YOBS AND GOONS
Here’s my daily collection of covidiots, serving as a reminder that covidiocy is easily spread.
CONMEN, SCAMMERS AND FRAUDSTERS
More than 500,000 unusable face masks, and a garage selling fake Covid-19 testing kits, are among the hundreds of frauds investigated by trading standards officers in Britain since the start of the lockdown.
According to the Local Government Association there, conmen have gone into overdrive during the past six weeks to exploit the public’s fears and the fact that they are stuck at home.
Some local authorities have reported a 40 per cent jump in complaints about fake items and other Covid-19-related scams since early March, the LGA said in a Guardian report.
It warned consumers to stay especially vigilant as they stay at home.
Trading standards officers in Havering, east London, intervened after receiving a report of a car repair garage allegedly trying to sell Covid-19 testing kits to customers. Officers in the borough also issued a warning to a chemist caught selling illegal, homemade hand sanitisers, which were immediately impounded.
2,600 BOTTLES OF ILLEGAL SANITISER
On the other side of the capital in Ealing, officers seized more than 500,000 face masks which had fake safety markings and fell apart on inspection, plus 2,600 bottles of illegal hand sanitiser.
The LGA said there have been widespread complaints of scammers trying to exploit the replacement school meals chaos, telling people they need their bank details to make payments.
Fraudsters have been posing as government officials offering special Covid-19 grants or loans while fake IT workers have preyed on those forced to work from home for the first time.
Conmen in Swindon even posed as council workers distributing food parcels to gain pensioners’ personal details with a view to later defrauding them, it said.
Simon Blackburn of the LGA said criminals had been exploiting coronavirus fears to prey on vulnerable and older people self-isolating.
“People need to be cautious. If something doesn’t seem right or sounds too good to be true, don’t hesitate to end a phone call, bin a letter, delete an email or shut the door,” he said.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
I’m not an expert, but I might be able to help you make a bit of sense of this. And we can all get through it together. Isn’t this what this is all about.
Send your questions for me to Readers@gulfnews.com.
That’s it for now. Let’s check in with each other tomorrow. I have used files from Reuters, AP, SkyNews, Twitter and other European and North American media outlets in today’s blog. And remember to stay safe.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe