From the very beginning I was afraid of Covid-19. That was in January when I first began to read reports of deaths in China.
If that ever reaches the UK, I’ll do everything I can to avoid catching it, I told myself.
So, when it did inevitably arrive, my wife Plum and I, at 79, and by age both classed as vulnerable, went into virtual isolation, she cancelling her choir, me refusing any social engagements.
And, because I was more worried about her than myself, I did the shopping alone during the first part of April, three times to a supermarket, once to a DIY shop and another to a garden centre. No big crowds in any of them.
Within hours of being admitted, it was confirmed that I had Covid-19 and, as I was moved around the wards at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, it became quickly clear that I had a particularly nasty form of the disease. He is pictured with his wife Plum at home
With no face masks by then available online, my mouth and nose were always wrapped in a scarf when I went out; while, at home, in a break between writing projects, I decorated our bedroom.
The first suggestion that, despite my caution, all might not be right came when I developed a cough.
Initially, I put it down to fumes from the paint, but then I found I couldn’t eat anything other than ice cream.
My wife phoned our GP and he recommended a course of antibiotics to prevent other infections in case I did have the virus.
A day or so later, a friend phoned me and my speech was suddenly incomprehensible. Plum dialled the 111 NHS helpline.
Of course, deep into the slumber of my coma, when I was first being fed via a tube through my nose and then by way of another tube directly into my stomach, I knew nothing of the innumerable problems the doctors and nurses faced as they struggled to keep me alive. But they never gave in. They saved my life
I’m told that an ambulance was at our house within 20 minutes and I was driven away. That was the last time I would see my home for five-and-a-half months. The date was April 15.
I have no recollection of the events of that day or of any other days until the end of July. Most of those three months are a complete blank in my mind.
Within hours of being admitted, it was confirmed that I had Covid-19 and, as I was moved around the wards at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, it became quickly clear that I had a particularly nasty form of the disease.
During breaks in my sleep, when I was just about conscious, and with Plum not allowed to see me, I began phoning my children telling them that I’d been kidnapped by the NHS, pleading with them to ‘get me out of this place’.
The doctors and nurses were, I told them, ‘all dressed as monkeys’. They were, in fact, all wearing full PPE, but that was, I would later realise, the first of many terror deliriums.
An unhappy episode followed as the hospital staff struggled to convince me to wear a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) mask to help me breathe, one doctor phoning Plum at ten past four in the morning, asking her to try to reason with me.
She couldn’t, so I was moved to the intensive care unit and put into an induced coma and kept alive by a life-support machine.
I know all this not because I was aware of any of it, but because Plum kept careful notes of every conversation with the doctors and nurses at the hospital so that she could inform our three children.
Reading, this week, the emails she sent them has been upsetting, as, every day, she informed them of my rapidly declining health while one crisis or infection followed another.
My lungs were the first target for the virus, and then came pneumonia, kidney dialysis and a tracheotomy, which was basically a hole put in the front of my throat, through which a ventilator did much of the breathing for me, while rendering me speechless.
Ray Connolly is pictured above with Paul McCartney. From the very beginning I was afraid of Covid-19. That was in January when I first began to read reports of deaths in China. If that ever reaches the UK, I’ll do everything I can to avoid catching it, I told myself
As I was so heavily sedated, I imagine my inability to talk was the least of my worries.
Then there were two heart attacks, and a day out to West Middlesex Hospital where a couple of stents were put in place.
Before I got Covid-19, I’d never had any indication that there was anything wrong with my heart, my lungs or my kidneys.
The month of May was the worst time when, on three occasions, doctors told Plum that, as I was so weak, if my heart stopped beating no attempt would be made to resuscitate me.
It seemed that, as well as persistent atrial fibrillation, when the rhythm of my heart would suddenly change, my life was hanging on a single beat.
Of course, deep into the slumber of my coma, when I was first being fed via a tube through my nose and then by way of another tube directly into my stomach, I knew nothing of the innumerable problems the doctors and nurses faced as they struggled to keep me alive. But they never gave in. They saved my life.
Unaware of their efforts for my body, my brain was conjuring up a series of hallucinations. We all have dreams and nightmares, but these were different.
What passed through my mind during those months was so realistic that, for weeks after, I believed that the incidents I had been imagining were really happening.
One hallucination took me to Santa Monica in California for an operation, which I then recounted to a doctor at my bedside. Rather than draw my attention to my uncertain mental health at that time, he smiled kindly and changed the subject.
It was left to my son Dominic to bring me back to reality when he was eventually allowed in to see me. ‘America?’ he said. ‘Dad, you haven’t been out of this room or this bed in months.’
Some of these mental adventures were disturbing. In one, I was eight years old in a hospital ward, hiding under the sheets as a paedophile roamed the beds trying to find me.
Another had me in India facing a frighteningly angry mob when I upset a wizened old guru.
A third was the most confusing in that it starred a group of NHS nurses (some of whom I recognised as being my carers and among the kindest people in the world) as they ignored my pleas and took over our house to make a comedy film in which they ripped out our bath and replaced it with a jukebox.
Some of the fantasies are amusing to remember now. There was, for instance, one in which broadcaster Mishal Husain phoned and asked me to write a play for her.
Despite the fact that I’ve only met her briefly at the BBC, I don’t seem to have been surprised by the sudden request. Having agreed to write the play, I then invited her to accompany Plum and me and friends on a trip to Norway the next day, where we all slept out under the stars in sleeping bags.
Even with Mishal Husain as a companion, camping without a tent is just about the last thing I would consciously ever even consider.
When my family were still unable to visit me, the nurses suggested they send me photographs of people in my life, as well as images of my garden, to encourage me, while playing Elvis and Beatles records to me.
The thought was right, until my daughter, Louise, pointed out that I was more likely to respond to a doo-wop group from the Fifties.
It was, however, my reaction to Runaway, by Del Shannon, that my son Kieron remembers most clearly. When finally allowed to visit me, he saw how, with my eyes closed, I suddenly began mouthing the lyrics with my hands in the air as though I was playing the notes on the organ in the song’s instrumental break.
I like to think this was a key moment in my recovery. I remained speechless, but, I’m told, I would come alive as best I could when Plum and Kieron sang the Everly Brothers’ Devoted To You down the phone. That song had long been a favourite in our family.
I was still very muddled, however. For some reason, I got it into my head that we had sold our house and bought another. So, when Plum insisted that she was still living in the same place I decided she had Alzheimer’s disease — because she didn’t know where she lived any more. The children eased my worries by agreeing that they would keep an eye on her for me.
So the summer dragged on into July as, one by one, the various medicines were changed, the ventilator was taken away, my voice was restored and Plum visited me every afternoon. Only then, as I spent more and more time awake, did I realise that the months of lying in bed had left me unable to walk . . . although that seemed unimportant, so pleased was I to be able to see and talk with my family.
At the same time, one of the dreams I’d had earlier in my illness returned.
In it I was dossing down in the bar of a smart West End hotel (they didn’t seem to mind) when a stranger approached me and said: ‘I know who you are. You’re Ray Connolly, and you’ve been very, very poorly. What you don’t know is that you’re still very poorly.’
The true nature of my illness was finally getting through to me but, already, I was being encouraged by the physios to walk a few paces with a Zimmer frame.
By August, I was moved from the intensive care unit (having set a record, I was told, of more than 100 days there) and put in a more general ward.
I was almost ready to go home, I thought. But then came another setback when, having been transferred to a rehab clinic, I began to vomit blood — lots of it, like a Quentin Tarantino film.
Hastily, I was rushed back to hospital for more tests. Did Covid-19 have one final unkind trick to play on me? I wondered as I waited for the results.
Apparently not. No reason could be found for the blood and, after another week, I was re-released to the gentle arms of rehab for a final three weeks’ internment before the transport came to take me home.
And, suddenly, two weeks ago, with the aid of a crutch, I walked back into my house to ‘Welcome Home’ balloons in the hall, and was amazed to find the redecorating that I’d done and then forgotten about when I’d been so summarily taken away.
Weighing more than a stone lighter, and with my hair thinner, it was an emotional homecoming, not least because of a secret Plum had kept from me while I’d been away.
When my life had been hanging by a thread in May, a very close friend of hers had died from the same disease. Nothing is fair in life and death.
So here I am, carefully re-negotiating the three flights of stairs that, until last April, I would daily run up and down, and reading the news about Covid deniers and university students who are rebelling against the Government’s lockdown restrictions on their social lives.
And all I can think of is those wonderful doctors and nurses and ambulance drivers in the NHS who, sometimes at risk to themselves, nursed me and thousands of others this year, making it possible for us to have a life at all.
All of them are people who will uncomplainingly take care of those protesters, should any of them, unfortunately, become infected after enjoying their ‘freedom’ to have a night out with their friends.
As for Donald Trump’s assertion this week that we should not be afraid of Covid-19, the families of the million people around the world who have died of the disease, more than 200,000 in the U.S. and over 42,000 in the UK, would disagree, as would I.
Forget the ‘R’ rate, it’s Covid clusters we need to stop
During the coronavirus pandemic, the reproduction number — R for short — has been used as a key measure of whether the virus is under control.
This shows how many people, on average, one person with Covid-19 infects.
Trying to keep this number under one has been a major part of the Government’s response to the pandemic.
But researchers now claim a more useful tool for managing the virus is a measure known simply as K. This reveals the pattern in the way the virus spreads.
A K value of one or more means a disease spreads evenly throughout the population, as with flu (each person with flu generally passes it on to another).
But if the K number is under one, this means a disease spreads in clusters.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the reproduction number — R for short — has been used as a key measure of whether the virus is under control. This shows how many people, on average, one person with Covid-19 infects
This is significant because it provides key information about how we can keep the virus under control.
Covid-19 is estimated to have a K value of between 0.1 and 0.5 per cent, based on research by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. This suggests that it spreads in clusters.
Indeed, scientists believe that between 10 and 20 per cent of people with Covid are responsible for passing on 80 per cent of infections — so-called super-spreaders — while most people with the virus won’t pass it on to anyone.
Dr Muge Cevik, a clinical lecturer in infectious diseases and medical virology at the University of St Andrews, explains: ‘While R shows the average of how many people are infected by one person, K shows the variation in transmission.
‘Research shows Covid-19 is a highly overdispersed pathogen, which means it tends to spread in clusters.’
As K estimates the way the virus is transmitted, it will not necessarily change over time.
However, using K rather than R to underpin our response to the virus would be a better way of tackling it, according to Dr Cevik, who recently co-authored a review on transmission conditions for Covid-19, published last month in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.
‘At the moment, our policy is to try to prevent every infection but, not only is that impossible, it’s not necessary, as most people who get Covid-19 won’t pass it on to others,’ she says.
It’s not about identifying super-spreaders, as that would not be feasible; rather, it is about tackling environments that encourage cluster spreading, she says.
‘We should concentrate on limiting the super-spreader environments — indoor, poorly ventilated environments and gatherings linked to the majority of infections, such as weddings and crowded restaurants and buses — and open up safer environments, such as well-ventilated indoor, or outdoor, meeting spaces.
‘People need spaces where they can safely interact with each other. K helps us come up with a far more nuanced and targeted approach.’
For a large cluster to occur, several things are needed: a highly infectious person, a crowded indoor event and prolonged contact with others, she adds.
However, the problem with Covid-19 is that people can be highly infectious but have no symptoms at all, or only mild symptoms, so may infect others unknowingly.
A person is highly infectious in the two days or so before symptoms appear, and then five days after.
‘That’s why self-isolation when you’re feeling ill is critical to prevent onward transmission,’ says Dr Cevik.
She adds that it’s important to avoid crowded, poorly ventilated indoor environments as transmission could occur even if you’re more than two metres apart. That’s because small droplets could linger longer due to the poor ventilation.
‘If you’re not able to avoid these environments, wearing a mask could help,’ she advises.