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29 April 2020

“It’s been five weeks and two days”: What is it like to quarantine alone?

People from across the UK share the frustrations, surprises and heartache of legally enforced solitude.

By Eleanor Peake

“Sometimes I sit in the car for a change of scenery,” says Paul, who has been isolating on his own in Manchester for over a month now. His survival plan has centred on a strict daily routine: in the morning he listens to the BBC World Service; at 10am he eats tea and toast. He calls his elderly neighbour every day, and then he calls his girlfriend. After that, the rest of the day lies before him. He doesn’t have an internet connection, so sometimes he organises his collection of maps or goes for a long bike ride. Occasionally he sits in his car to read.

Before retiring, Paul, 65, had been a physics teacher for 35 years. “I used to talk all day from eight until four o’clock without interruption, so being in self-isolation where I don’t speak at all is very unusual.” Since retiring, Paul has completed mammoth world trips: cycling around Australia, sailing several oceans. Now, being cooped up in a house is hard. “I feel like a cast member of a sci-fi film, but based in Altrincham,” he says.

Like the rest of us, Paul is in self-isolation. But while the entire country is coping with an enforced lockdown, those living alone are dealing with a much harsher reality.

Zoe, 24, is living and working on her own in her west London flat. “It’s been five weeks and two days,” she says. She didn’t intend to isolate on her own for this amount of time: “Originally I thought this was just going to be a month and I would get to see someone once a week, but it has escalated loads.”

Before lockdown, Zoe loved being out with her friends. “Weekdays tend to be the hardest because it’s supposed to be a productive time, and friends are less around.”

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At the beginning, friends and family contacted her constantly, worried about how she was coping. Most of her free time was spent socialising on the video-call app Zoom. “My low point was when I arranged a Netflix Zoom party with some friends. I didn’t want to keep reminding people about it and a few of my friends had made other plans. I had a little cry because I thought, ‘Oh no, everyone has forgotten about me’, but I think it was not having a flatmate to turn around to and be, like, you’re always here for me. Having to rely on online communication can sometimes be a little difficult.”

Five weeks later and she feels calmer: “Everyone keeps talking about the New Normal, and I do feel that. Once you settle into a routine it’s OK. If I didn’t have a decent internet connection I would definitely be sad and isolated.”

“I try not to think about it too much,” says Dan, also in his early twenties. “The hardest thing is trying to keep occupied physically and mentally, and that feels quite tiring.”

Dan has been alone in his Sheffield flat since 18 March. He used to work as a chef in the city centre, but he was furloughed until further notice. “It wasn’t a conscious decision to quarantine alone; I’ve lived on my own in a flat for four years now and it’s become very much my home.”

Dan gets up around ten o’clock and has a cup of tea and a cigarette. He listens to music to wake himself up. He plans his meals for the day and then he goes to the shop to buy the ingredients. “In the afternoon, I either play some guitar, video games or watch cooking videos. In the evening I cook dinner, have a couple of beers or glasses of wine, and then lounge until I’m ready for bed. It’s incredibly mundane.” The worst part of the day is the afternoon, when he has to try to find something to do. 

Dan’s main concern is his ability to keep a positive mindset. “I’m finding the fact that we’re going to be in this situation for such a long time quite daunting; it’s hitting me now.”

Since the clocks changed in March, the days have grown longer. But for those alone, the days are growing longer still. For those more seasoned in their own company, isolation is an unhappy extension of their usual routine. For others, the shock of social separation is crushing.

As Emily Beater noted in the New Statesman, before coronavirus hit people didn’t see the trauma of isolation. Now loneliness is everywhere.

“Before lockdown, 1.2 million older people already experienced chronic loneliness. They will be the ones most at risk, as the current lockdown is further reducing their opportunities to connect with others,” says Robin Hewings, director of campaigns, policy and research for the Campaign to End Loneliness.

“While there will be an overwhelming sense of relief when lockdown restrictions are lifted, there will still be many people struggling. For those suffering from chronic loneliness, or who are over 70 with underlying health conditions, lockdown, and loneliness, will continue to be a reality,” he adds.

Five weeks in and Paul remains positive. The years he has spent on longhaul solo trips have mentally prepared him for the slog ahead. He comments on the joy of seeing families out in groups, cycling on country lanes. “It’s nice to see them all together,” he says. For now, he focuses on organising his maps, preparing for his adventures to come.

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