Leaning back in a tightly upholstered straight backed chair, surrounded by metres of empty parquet floor, I was gazing at the high, glass-vaulted ceiling of the Royal Horticultural Society when I heard a muffled voice next to me.
“I can’t. I will but I just can’t now. Please take my place,” the woman said.
She took mine and moments later I was rolling up my sleeve and telling a woman in scrubs that I had no allergies or any other impediments as she filled a syringe from a small glass vial.
“You’ll be getting the Pfizer vaccine today,” she said, as if it was the in-flight menu on British Airways.
For weeks I had been listening to reports about various hospitals in London where, if you turned up in the late afternoon, they would give you one of the vaccines left over because of no shows earlier in the day. Someone somebody knew had heard about someone else walking along a street in Soho around 5pm when a nurse came out of a medical practice asking if anyone wanted a jab.
There were two hot tips, one about a hospital in south London where someone I almost knew had been vaccinated one afternoon, no questions asked. Then a friend whose partner is a GP who is exposed to patients all day told me he had been to a hospital in north London where they told him they had none left that day but if he came around 4.30pm on Monday he was sure to get one.
I started to muse about a plan and a friend half my age said she would come along when I told her I’d heard they asked no questions about age or infirmity.
“I think I’d feel more comfortable going with you if you don’t mind my saying so,” she said.
But at lunchtime the following day, a text message told me to call my GP and I was given an appointment for that afternoon. I was insufferable afterwards, crowing to all my friends about my good fortune and making patronising noises about how they would surely not have long to wait for their turn.
Suddenly they were all exploring the late afternoon leftover option but none had any success and the GP’s partner was given what he called “the X-ray once over” by a male nurse who seemed to have walked off the set of Mean Girls.
“There are none left over and anyway, we all have partners,” he said.
Bending the rules
A few days later, that friend was called up in the same way I was and since then more and more of our circle have been vaccinated. We all agreed that it’s a nice feeling and it’s good to be protected but with the lockdown still in place, we’re all vaxxed up with no place to go.
Then someone I know got this WhatsApp message: “Hey tiger! Next Saturday is my birthday. I am having a little gathering BUT only about 7 of us ALL have had it recently OR been vaxxed over a month. Would love to see you if you feel you’d like it xxxxxxx??”
Across London, people are making similar calculations as they justify bending or breaking the rules, adding into the mix that instant lateral flow tests are available free in every borough.
“You’ve had the jab, I’ve had the virus, he’ll get a test and she never sees anyone anyway,” one friend said last week, proposing a “socially distanced” drink.
Such tortured excuses for breaking the rules are set to become more common as England moves slowly through the various stages of unwinding lockdown in the coming months. Nothing much will change until April 12th, when we can get our hair cut and dine outdoors at a restaurant, and it will be mid-June before everything opens up.
In the meantime, the vaccine rollout steams ahead, case numbers are dropping and the fall in deaths and hospitalisations is likely to accelerate in the next few weeks. On Thursday, Britain’s chief medical officers reduced the coronavirus threat level from five to four because the likelihood of the National Health Service (NHS) being overwhelmed has receded.
As the virus abates and more of the population is vaccinated, the signs are that people are already moving a step or two ahead of the rules. The other day, a neighbour in her late 80s I always feared the virus might kill told me how full of energy and optimism she felt now she was vaccinated. I told her what a joy it was to see her so well and as we parted she turned back.
“Why don’t you come over for a drink next week?” she said.