Phil Jones's Diary: My struggles with Covid-19, back to work at the BBC, and what I’ve learned about human kindness

The morning after the Prime Minister announced the start of lockdown, I woke up with a fever, dry cough and searing headache.

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Looking back, I was almost as cavalier about Covid-19 as Boris Johnson. I didn’t exactly think it was OK to go around shaking hands with everyone, but I was well behind the curve. I remember saying to a colleague at BBC Radio 2, “I just want things to be normal.” He’s the sort of person who hates to contradict his boss, but he looked me straight in the eye and said, “But Phil, things aren’t normal.”

The killer inside me

That evening the Prime Minister announced the start of lockdown, and the next morning I woke up with a fever, dry cough and searing headache. I confidently thought I’d be better in five days, but the nightmare was just beginning. Each week the symptoms got worse. Friends have subsequently asked what it was like having Covid-19. It really did feel, as if in a science fiction novel, as though there was something inside my body trying to kill me. By the end of week three, I remember thinking: “If this steps up again, I may not survive.”

Having a very high temperature for several days can affect your mind. There were some dark nights when I forced myself to sit up in bed doing breathing exercises, willing the virus not to infect my lungs. As a fit and healthy man, I’d always thought I’d live well into my eighties – not die aged 61. I realised how bad things might be when I heard that my daughter, who lives in Berlin, was considering coming home to say goodbye to her dad.

Fearing for the PM’s life

Luckily, though, I’d reached a plateau – and slowly I started to recover. Unlike Boris Johnson, I wasn’t hospitalised. Upon hearing the news that he was in intensive care, how many of us googled the stats and realised he had a very real chance of dying? It was a complicated thought for many. The man who had been slow to see the dangers of coronavirus had a real chance of becoming one of its victims, and the first PM to die in office since Viscount Palmerston in 1865.

The joys of spring

As my strength improved, my son Billy suggested we take a walk in our local wood: “I’ll rest with you, Dad, if you get tired.” In the four weeks since I’d been outside, spring had come, and witnessing that renewal was a profound experience. The light filtering through the trees, the green shoots, the bluebells – it all gave me a sense of elation that I found quite overwhelming. I was alive! It felt exhilarating. Later that sank into a feeling of guilt as I thought of all those who were still suffering, or hadn’t survived.

Treatment for transgressors

It’s interesting that the NHS has become “Our NHS”. We love it because it treats us all equally – and many people wanted to believe lockdown was the same. The public stuck to the rules because of the illusion of a British sense of fairness. That’s why there was such an outcry when certain prominent figures appeared to trash the guidelines.

In medieval times we used to put transgressors in the stocks; now we subject them to Kuenssberg and Peston in the Downing Street garden. The Cummings press conference was theatre of the highest calibre. We must congratulate the government for providing such fabulous entertainment on the Bank Holiday, particularly when so many of us were locked down at home.

Missing the equality of the office

Lockdown has been a doddle for some, but a torment for others. At Radio 2 we asked our audience whether they wanted it lifted, and, as other polls suggest, a surprising number said “no”. You can see why.

On a personal level I felt apprehensive about leaving the cocoon of home and returning to work after so long. Once I got back, I was hit with an alternative thought: no one lies on their death bed wishing they’d spent another hour in the office. But, as Lucy Kellaway writes in the Financial Times, people start to miss their workplace and comradeship from colleagues. There’s a sense of equality in the office that isn’t there when people work from home. Some of my team are balancing laptops precariously on knees in tiny bedsits. Others struggle with the mayhem of childcare. Crucially, creative endeavour is a communal experience that can’t easily be conjured up on Zoom.

Thoughts on the future

What have we learned from this pandemic? It’s a lesson we seem able to rediscover only during a crisis: that we survive and thrive on this planet by working together. Two weeks ago, this magazine repeated a question from the political philosopher Michael Sandel: “What do we owe one another as citizens?” I hope my answer doesn’t sound too trite, but I would argue that kindness is the quality that has been so fiercely illuminated during the crisis – whether it’s the 750,000 citizens who volunteered to work for the NHS, or, on a more intimate level, the friends, neighbours and colleagues who personally helped me when I was unable to look after myself, delivering food, medicine, love and good cheer.

I’d like to start a wish list for a better world post-Covid-19. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing that fewer people fly, that the air is cleaner, that more of us cycle into work and hear birdsong in our ears. And that our children grow up learning that kindness is one of the greatest of human qualities.

Pandemic ponderings

A final thought from my friend Tom, who rang to say lockdown has made life better in some ways. As he put it: “In the past I used to just fill up my watering can, now I spend ten minutes pondering whether to do so.” How good we now have time to ponder.

Phil Jones is the editor of the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2

This article appears in the 05 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe

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