A week ahead of lockdown, I went into self-isolation with my two and a half year old daughter Maia. I had developed a dry cough and breathlessness. As someone with a chronic respiratory condition, I knew I was more at risk than others of succumbing to this virus in a serious way. To say I was panicked, would be an understatement.
It feels like Dominic Cummings, the Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister, is all we can talk about right now, after it was revealed he drove 264 miles with his four-year-old child and sick wife to his parent’s estate in Durham during the height of lockdown. Cummings’ reasoning was that he was facing an “exceptional” situation as there were risks to the health of a small child. Read: he foresaw that he too would fall ill and their two-parent household would have to juggle childcare between them while feeling below par.
As an asthmatic, single mum of a child younger than Cummings’s, I have very limited empathy for him. In fact, I’m insulted.
I knew the guidance was to stay home and isolate as a household for 14 days if you experienced any symptoms. We knew we were clearly not to travel anywhere. After a teary-eyed, slightly panicked phone call to my mum who lives in France, I started to gear up for a potentially tough two weeks indoors. It felt gut wrenching to know my family would be so far away, and would have to stay that way. I would be physically isolated from the entire support system I had spent years building to help me to weather the storm of single motherhood.
I wrote lists of the food and drinks my daughter would need for a fortnight, what would keep her occupied if I couldn’t get out of bed, and what food and drink I might be able to consume if my symptoms worsened. I made plans on how to obtain said items as I was no longer able to shop for myself, and while kind friends left food packages outside my door, I called local family members asking if they would be comfortable looking after my daughter, Maia, if I ended up needing hospital care.
I was lucky that my condition never got worse, but as an asthmatic, I needed to consider the worst – for the sake of myself and my daughter. The realisation that I was asking them if they would – in the face of potentially catching a life-threatening disease – take care of my child for me if I no longer could was absolutely devastating.
I can completely understand why Dominic Cummings wanted to be closer to his family. Of course he did. We all did. We all still do. But it was and still is against guidance to move residence. Cummings said the rules around “small children in extreme circumstances” allowed him to exercise his judgement and abandon the “stay home, stay safe, save lives” guidance, that his family in Durham were the only people he could “reasonably” ask to take care of his four year old if needs be. Mitigating the risk was something the public felt they were not afforded, so why was he?
At the time of writing, there have been over 265,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK. How many of those were sole parents struggling to take care of their children while battling this virus? How many of them wished they had their parents, partners, siblings, or friends with them to lend a helping hand?
Every lone parent will tell you of the fear they have of getting ill, or of being incapacitated in some way, even outside of a pandemic. We have no back up hands ready to take over when we need to rest up. We are forced to battle through it. To make do. I have the privilege of being able-bodied and relatively healthy, so it has only been a handful of times I have had to juggle illness with full-time, relentless parenting of a small and demanding being. What Cummings was very temporarily facing was the possibility of a reality that many parents with disabilities or chronic illnesses live every single day with their children. A reality I can only imagine has been worsened and exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic, as support and helping hands are no longer as readily available.
I tentatively watched his press conference in the rose garden of Number 10, hoping for an apology for such an audacious display of privilege but knowing that it was unlikely to come. This was a man who truly felt he could do as he liked, because his position exempted him. Not once did he acknowledge that there are people (like me) who faced the decision he did, and still choose to follow the guidelines to protect the wider public. I found myself physically recoiling from the television as he continued his attempt at gaslighting an entire nation to believe what he did was reasonable and legal.
So yes Cummings, of course “the British people hate the idea of unfairness”, but in this case it’s not the idea of unfairness that has us furious – it’s your audacity to so publicly exert your exemption from the sacrifices the rest of us have made, and continue to make, every day.