SARAH VINE: The over 70s must protect themselves by self-isolating

It’s a bitter pill to swallow – but if the over 70s don’t protect themselves, the alternative is unthinkable, writes SARAH VINE

Poor Matt Hancock. I don’t envy him having to tell the nation’s baby boomers that they must self-isolate for the foreseeable future. 

Most 70-plus-year-olds I know are just as much the life and soul of the party as they were 50 years ago – in some cases more so.

It’s like asking Patsy and Edina to lay off the fags and champers, or suggesting Keith Richards get an early night.

Cocooning is the only way to ensure these groups stay as safe as they possibly can during this phase of the response – to do otherwise would simply be irresponsible. An elderly woman is pictured above wearing a face mask outside

This is not a generation of doddery, grey-haired retirees, content to potter away their pensions in the back garden: These are people living life to the full. In many cases, their best life.

They travel, exercise, socialise and take holidays. Many (such as my father) are still in full-time employment. They simply don’t think of themselves as ‘vulnerable’. And yet, when it comes to Covid-19, they are.

The truth is that the mortality rate for this virus in the over 70s is currently running at about 10 per cent – one in ten people – as compared to less than 1 per cent in the wider population. That is just not a figure that can be dismissed or taken lightly.

Unless we want to lose significant numbers of beloved family members, we need to protect them – and they need to protect themselves.

For those affected it is a bitter pill to swallow; but the alternative is unthinkable.

It may be advisable to maintain a physical distance, but there are plenty of ways we can step up contact via the use of technology. In this respect we have a huge advantage over previous generations [File photo]

Quite simply, Government needs time to put in place contingency medical plans to cope with this pandemic – namely getting on to a wartime footing by buying up thousands of extra ventilators and intubation equipment to deal with how the virus targets the lungs in the elderly and infirm.

And although infection rates at present are still relatively low (roughly 800 confirmed cases as I type, versus over 15,000 in Italy), there is no point in risking it.

Cocooning is the only way to ensure these groups stay as safe as they possibly can during this phase of the response – to do otherwise would simply be irresponsible.

In any case, as draconian as these measures may sound, they are still preferable to shutting down the entire country as governments have done in places such as Spain and Italy.

There, the blanket ban on all normal activity is having a devastating effect on the morale and mental wellbeing of citizens – which even impromptu neighbourhood ‘balcony’ singsongs cannot quite lift.

In Turin, where my parents live and where they have been housebound for days now, everything – and I mean everything – has grounded to a halt.

Shops and businesses can’t trade, children cannot go to school, all restaurants are closed, you can’t even buy a coffee (and that, for Italians, is serious). You even need permission to go for a walk.

In Spain, where my brother lives, the situation is very similar – although a friend tells me that hairdressers are being allowed to remain open since they fall into the category of ‘essential services’ – unsurprisingly, in France, women are block booking beauty treatments ahead of a possible shutdown.

France has announced tobacconists are on their list of essential businesses – how very French.

People are coping, of course. My mother has taken to systematically defrosting and cooking the contents of her freezer with the help of her trusty Elizabeth David.

Most 70-plus-year-olds I know are just as much the life and soul of the party as they were 50 years ago – in some cases more so. It’s like asking Patsy and Edina to lay off the fags and champers, or suggesting Keith Richards get an early night

My father is doing his bit for the war effort by drinking wine, smoking cigars and shouting at the telly.

(My mother notes that since the isolation period started, the number of bottles in her recycling bin has increased substantially).

But it is by no means easy. Many Italians I know are feeling incredibly lost and fearful – not least because they worry that, given the parlous state of the Italian economy, many businesses that have had to suspend trading may never re-open.

Jobs are on the line – a fact not helped by the crass intervention of the serial incompetent Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank, who last week said she has no obligation to help the Italian government in its time of crisis. So much for EU solidarity.

Self-employed – cleaners, beauticians, hairdressers, plumbers, electricians, car mechanics and so on – suddenly find no income and no prospect of any for the foreseeable future.

Entire livelihoods and futures are hanging in the balance, the basic infrastructures of civilisation slowly collapsing.

Italians are behaving incredibly well, altruistically, even. But Covid-19 is more than just an assault on our immune systems; it’s a threat to our very way of life.

And that being so, singling out the elderly and the vulnerable for special care is, for the time being, the least bad option in a raft of frankly terrible ones. No one imagines it will be easy. House arrest is a punishment for a reason.

The psychological impact will weigh heavily, especially upon those elderly people who are already on their own so much, whose partners or spouses have already passed away and who have no one, however infuriating, to suffer alongside them.

Not everyone has a companion, however grumpy or infuriating, sitting next to them on the sofa.

For some, the only personal contact is the arrival once, twice or even three times a day, of their carer; or their cleaner.

It’s the chat with the chemist or the people in their local shops and cafes – all of whom keep an eye on them and flag it up if they don’t see them. Without that contact they will inevitably suffer.

The onus is therefore on the rest of us to ensure that isolation does not lead to neglect. 

The blanket ban on all normal activity is having a devastating effect on the morale and mental wellbeing of citizens – which even impromptu neighbourhood ‘balcony’ singsongs cannot quite lift. A woman is pictured using saucepan lids as cymbals for balcony singing in Rome

It may be advisable to maintain a physical distance, but there are plenty of ways we can step up contact via the use of technology.

In this respect we have a huge advantage over previous generations. The internet, so often the source of so much anxiety in the modern world, could turn out to be a lifesaver.

In my mother’s case, the Whats-App groups are buzzing away.

My friend whose mother is in a care home in Wales has been chatting to her grandchildren via Skype, set up by a kind member of staff.

Apps like Next Door – the social network for local communities, a sort of online curtain-twitching with small ads which is completely addictive – are bristling with citizens offering help now they’re in their university holidays, or have been told to work from home.

Local councillors and voluntary groups, too, are marshalling rosters to shop, cook, clean or introduce elderly neighbours to the delights of Ocado.

In my local park, one of my dog-walker friends was telling me about her 84-year-old father, whose main concern is that his holiday to the Canaries at Easter will be cancelled. I hope for his sake that it’s not.

But in the meantime, better safe than sorry.

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