By Colin Wiles, housing consultant.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

A health warning to begin with. This blog is a series of unrelated musings about the crisis. There’s so much to take in that’s hard to construct a tidy narrative. I take the Jürgen Norbert Klopp line that this is something for the experts to comment upon, but I’ve just written a briefing for HQN on how housing providers should respond so I think I can write a little about the impact upon our sector.

Things are changing hour by hour, so everything we write can be out of date fairly quickly. That’s why it’s important that you keep your eye on official advice on the Public Health England and NHS websites, as well as information from your professional and trade bodies. It’s also crucial to ignore all the waffle and hysteria on social media, including all the anecdotes presented as evidence (“A friend of a friend is a doctor and he says blah blah blah”).

What we’re learning is that this crisis is bringing out the very best and the very worst in people – but the worst, as ever, are a tiny minority. Most people are good.

Taking this all in is difficult and it’d be an understandable response to escape from the world and hope it goes away. It seems some people have been doing that by fleeing to Cornwall and the Scottish Highlands, probably spreading the virus as they go.

To start with, how are you coping? Are you cooped up in a tiny flat with kids or do you have a spacious house and garden with online deliveries of food? Do you have a network of friends and relatives that can offer help, or are you alone? Do you have Netflix and a supply of books? This will be a real test of our fortitude and our housing.

My partner is in Germany and I have no idea when I might see her again. They are ahead of us in terms of their lockdown (they closed schools and non- food shops two weeks ago and have the same rules about distancing and being outside).

I’m in small flat in a small town but I’m making trips to the allotment (exercise and food production combined, not seeing anyone or touching anything on the way). But I spent seven years in a military boarding school and she grew up in the GDR, so we can cope. Others are not so lucky.

I’m also collecting prescriptions and shopping and posting parcels for old folk around here. One of them has offered German lessons in return. The BBC has produced some useful tips on looking after your mental health and wellbeing and Sport England has produced a guide on how to exercise at home. I’ve also registered on the NHS volunteer scheme, see here for details.

I’m finding that friends and family are coming together like never before. Even the most IT illiterate are signing up for WhatsApp, Zoom and HouseParty and seeking regular conferences. So much so that it’s hard to get on with other things! All positive but it makes you wonder why people didn’t do this before. Perhaps we’re so bound up in our lives that we forget that the only three things that matter in life are health, friends and family.

I’ve a number of friends who feel they’ve had the virus and haven’t been tested or reported. My gut feeling is that the number of cases will be five or ten times higher than the official figures. This seems obvious given that the mortality rate appears to vary from 0.3% in Germany to over 8% in Italy. So perhaps the actual mortality rate is closer to influenza – but there’s no vaccine and no indication of when it might appear. But surely we need testing?

If so many people are asymptomatic we need to test the population so that people who have had it can be free to circulate, without infecting anyone or being infected (assuming reinfection is unlikely). But, as I said at the beginning, I’m no expert, so what do I know?

The virus is awful, but there are silver linings. We’ve a government that’s intervened in the state unlike at any time in peacetime. The magic money tree has been found and the government finally recognises that profit-driven businesses aren’t always the best. Rail franchises have been nationalised. The NHS is being pumped with money. Surely things can never be the same again? We cannot go back to the levels of greed, consumption, inequality and self-absorption that existed before, can we?

In addition, we have cleaner air and fewer deaths from air pollution and road traffic accidents. The climate can recover for a while (“The virus that saved the planet”). On the downside there will be a spike in suicides, domestic violence and child abuse. Criminals will have a
free rein to rob and plunder. At some point the negative impacts of lockdown might outweigh its medical benefits, but that time isn’t now. But think how much has changed in just a couple of weeks. This is a long haul and, well, “Events, dear boy, events”.

My final thoughts are about housing. This is a stressful time for everyone but even more so if you live in bad housing. This will be a severe test of the quality, durability and adaptability of our homes.

We have some of the smallest in Europe and they’re going to be stress tested to the extreme. The wear and tear will be enormous and repair requests will rise at a time when many contractors are disappearing. Domestic abusers and child abusers will be able to operate with impunity.

Neighbour disputes are likely to escalate and providers need to keep an eye on this and to protect their most vulnerable residents. You’ll need clear policies and protocols on entering homes where people are self-isolating or shielding. There’s plenty of advice on the website. These are testing times but I’m sure everyone can face the challenge head on. It will pass. Keep busy. Learn a language. Read. Exercise. Stay safe