I’ve recently had a Covid test, although I don’t feel unwell. I participate in the Zoe programme and report every day on my health. On Friday, I indicated that I felt below par, although had none of the classic Covid symptoms of shortness of breath, high-temperature or a persistent cough. As the day went on, I felt better, and was therefore surprised on Saturday morning to receive an invitation for a Covid test. But I was pleased. The invitation offered some kind of certainty in the current pervasive atmosphere of inexplicit dread.
I could choose whether to receive a test in the post, to administer myself; to go to a walk-in centre (although there were currently none available locally); or to go to a drive-through centre. I chose the latter, a large park-and-ride facility near Exeter. I was offered a choice of half-hourly slots throughout the day, none of which was apparently taken. So I chose 2 o’clock.
A large section of the park-and-ride facility had been cordoned off. I turned into the entrance, where a sign instructed me to keep windows closed. A masked figure in a high visibility jacket gestured the way and I drove 100 yards towards a portakabin. Outside the door stood another masked figure. As I approached he held up an A3 paper sign: ‘Are you here for a test?’ I gave him a thumbs up and he pointed me to the right. After driving 50 yards or so I was apprehended by a young man who, after telling me to keep my window closed, checked the QR code I had been given online and directed me towards a wide lane of traffic cones, again with signs warning me to keep windows closed. At the end of this lane, perhaps a further 200 yards, I approached several people outside another portakabin, some wearing high visibility jackets and others PPE. Like the young man who dealt with the QR code, the woman who signalled me to stop outside the portakabin was extraordinarily deliberate in her beckoning gestures, clearly trained to ensure that I stopped the car in exactly the correct place.
A masked and PPE-clad man in a long blue transparent cloak emerged from the portakabin and signalled me to lower my window. He told me his name was Ahmed, checked my QR code again, and gave me a tissue to blow my nose. He then explained he was going to swab the inside of my throat and then my nostril. This was the only moment of human contact throughout the entire event, and felt surprisingly intimate. He thanked me for opening my mouth wide while he swabbed and held the thin taper up my nostril for so long – while he counted to ten – that I had to sneeze as soon as he withdrew. I guess being a Covid tester is not a job for the faint hearted.
I thanked him and left, and was directed to the exit by two more high-vis jacketed people. 40 hours later, early on Monday morning, I received a text to say the result was negative.
The experience was both dystopian and strangely reassuring. The large, bare car park, with only a few temporary buildings, lines of traffic cones, and numerous warning signs, through which I was directed from station to station by masked operatives, had a feeling of the end of the world. Yet the very provision of the well-staffed service, the extreme care in hygiene, and the personal contact with the tester were reassurance of what can be done by a public health service where health and care are the overriding values.