Tuesday 31 March 2020

Day 8...

One of the strangest things to get used to currently is how quiet everything is. Barely any cars on the road due to the "no non-essential travel" decree, a massively reduced number of aircraft in the sky - at the time of writing there are less than 30 commercial aircraft showing in the skies over the whole of the UK - a fraction of the usual number for this time of the evening. The drop in ambient noise levels is astonishing - in our part of the country it's rarely "properly quiet", but at the moment, it frequently is. and then when out and about on foot, as well as seeing fewer other people generally, we are also having to come to terms with seeing places that we are familiar  with seeing bustling full of cars and people all closed down and quiet. The two photos above are two of our local trading estates - Queensgate Centre at the top is completely closed at the moment, and The Oaks, below, has a pet supplies store and two food shops open at the far end. B&Q is also open for Click & collect orders only. At the weekend we had to pop into the town centre as I needed to collect an order. Superdrug - where I was collecting from - was one of only about three stores open in the main shopping centre and the town as a whole felt somehow slightly abandoned.

While all this is going on around us, services continue to be provided. Our recycling bins were emptied yesterday, and the rubbish bins today - I made a point of calling out a thank you to both sets of bin men, they are in a position where it is difficult for them to socially distance while they are working so they are taking risks, yet still they continue. There are so many workers currently who could never have imagined themselves as key workers, yet suddenly they are; teachers; supermarket workers; delivery drivers; the staff at the Department of Work and pensions - and so many more quietly going about their business in order to keep the country running. And they of course are on top of the more obvious heroes in this situation - the NHS staff, emergency services, military and merchant navy. We owe them all the most tremendous debt of thanks, and maybe when we come out of the other side of this a few people will appreciate them all rather more than they have in the past.


Monday 30 March 2020

Day 7...

So today we complete our first week of lockdown here in the UK. Routines are being formed, and working from home is starting to feel a little more natural. We're all getting a little more used to moving to the sides of pavements etc to maintain distance from others, albeit there are still a lot of apologetic grins and slightly embarrassed looks at taking action that just a few weeks ago would have been considered downright rude!

From my point of view I've seen some major changes personally through the week - this time last Monday I was feeling genuinely scared about the idea of lockdown - the limited ability to get outside, only being able to exercise once a day - both of these things are major for me as fresh air and movement are my two main coping mechanisms for keeping my mental health on an even keel. The first few days felt strange - my anxiety was through the roof  and I was struggling to get into any sort of routine. By the end of the working week that had begun to settle down a lot, and a relatively "normal" weekend with a focus on just chilling and taking time for ourselves really helped too. Making sure we take the time for an hours outside exercise a day is proving invaluable - whether a good brisk walk, a slower amble taking the time to look at birds, or a run/walk. Working from home today felt productive - partly because of a good part of my days work being quite "usual" for me, and partly because I just got into the swing of switching between various jobs to maximise use of my time. I've also been making a conscious effort to step away from consuming too much media - whether mainstream or social - it was starting to feel counterproductive. I definitely feel better for having cut back a bit.

I've also been putting some thought into a couple of photo challenges for our Instagram aviation community and hopefully beyond too. A "Photo Fools Day" challenge for Wednesday involving photos of standard items or objects but from unusual angles - the idea is for people to post their photo and then for others to guess the object. And also following that will be a Lockdown Scavenger Hunt - 21 days of challenges following the letters of the hashtag - that one is still taking final shape as yet! Hopefully we can motivate people to take their phones or camera on their daily walk and really focus (literally!) on their surroundings, too.  We'll see how it goes!


Sunday 29 March 2020

Day 6...

So this is the scene at one of our two local Tesco stores where they have come up with a very inventive way of setting out the arrangements for queuing - yes, those are indeed the cages that are also used for deliveries! We had no need to work our way through it - mid afternoon today when we went we were able to walk straight to the doors and in - but it must certainly make life more straightforward to manage the flow into the store when it is busy!

Today has felt quite productive in spite of not bothering to get up until fairly late. A roast dinner - not something we have that often as we're often out and about so no time to cook it. Always a proper treat when we do get to have one though - I can see a few more in our immediate future! MrEH cleaned all the windowsills and frames on one side of the building and our kitchen windows too - he's a great person to get to do those sorts of jobs as he's very thorough and can also reach right to the tops of course! I hoovered right through then cleaned the vacuum cleaner filters - horrible job but that's it done for the next few uses now at least. After lunch we combined our daily "approved exercise" with some oddments of shopping we needed (hence the picture above) then walked a loop on the way back from the store including a poke around on the newly built industrial estate trying to see if they have reinstated the footpaths yet - they haven't, as far as we can see, which is annoying.

Once home we decided to undertake a project we've been putting off for a while - candlemaking. we burn candles a fair bit, and for years have made a habit of keeping the "burned through" wax residues for melting down and re-making. It's a fairly labour intensive job but generally we do a whole load all at once and then they do us for quite a while - we currently have about 10 - 12 reasonably sized candle jars all awaiting their final fill which they will get tomorrow - on initially filling  they "drop back" around the wicks so you have to return to them the day after and top them up to the top. They'll then do their final harden overnight before being ready to use from the following day. It's rewarding seeing them all done, saves a fortune in buying new and keeps the wax from going to landfill so good on all levels!

Tomorrow it's "back to work" for both of us - the spare room for MrEH and the front room table for me - and continuing with trying to build routines that will work for us. Reading the news reports today, it looks likely that these arrangements might continue for some time yet.


Saturday 28 March 2020

Day 5...

(If I miss a day here we're going to be utterly confused, aren't we!)

So here we are at our first lockdown weekend - and I have to say that it hasn't felt SO different from a regular one so far. It suddenly occurred to me last night that one positive coming from this is that we are gaining time - a rare and precious commodity for many of us much of the time. Just from our perspective, although we are still working our usual hours, we're "saving" our commute time - which can amount to a couple of hours a day on weekdays. A couple of hours may not seem like much, but when you suddenly gain that back it seems quite substantial.

Of course with all the events being cancelled, we look like gaining quite a lot more time as well - so the government announcement today that those of us in employment will be able to roll over any holiday time that we have been unable to take due to the virus was very welcome. Although the company I work for (small and very hot on treating their one employee - me - well) would almost certainly have been fine with me taking the holiday that is falling during the current situation later in the year, there will be firms out there who would have taken great delight in telling people to take the time as they have booked it - regardless of the fact that this current situation doesn't really lend itself to any form of holiday. That the government has recognised this and addressed it so early on must surely be seen as a sign that they are at least trying to be in touch with the way the rest of us have to operate. MrEH and I have already had two events for each of which we had a weeks worth of holiday booked cancelled, and it is very likely that another fortnight for a little later in the year will go the same way yet. While we may be able to use some of that time in the autumn, it won't be practical to use a full year's holiday allocation in those few months, not least as everyone else will be doing the same!

With no clear idea how long the lockdown is likely to continue for we've reached the conclusion that this first period is all about learning to adapt, learning to see the positives and find the ways in which they can outweigh at least some of the negatives, planning ahead for later in the year when hopefully we are able to find our way back to some form of normal, and to make the most of being able to just wind down, take time to read, watch films, do jigsaws or play games together.


Friday 27 March 2020

Day 4...

Early on today the news broke that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has tested positive for COVID-19 - and shortly afterwards we heard that both Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Chief Medical Office Chris Whitty (The man nobody had heard of a month ago, who is now a household name!) had also tested positive. All apparently have mild symptoms and will continue working while in self-isolation.  It may be a sign of the times that a positive hail of gleeful comment has been unleashed against Boris on social media - sadly not surprising, but nonetheless distasteful that someone would wish a potentially serious illness on another human being. Allowing for the way the virus spreads, presumably the ill-wishers will be equally as gleeful if the PM's 5 month pregnant fiancee also comes down with the virus- she is of course in the high risk group. For the avoidance of doubt - regardless of your politics, this sort of unpleasantness really does say far more about those uttering it than the person it is directed at.

Anyway! Enough of people who should know better! Today has been another day of sunshine, and we made the most of it by getting out for our exercise first thing for a run/walk around the Town Park. I think I've posted about this on here before - but we are so incredibly lucky to have this fantastic space (pictured above) so close by, and at the moment it's really coming into its own! In fact I had to tick off three of the accepted reasons to leave the house today - exercise, essential shopping (needed bread!) and then "helping someone vulnerable" this afternoon by collecting my Mum's prescription for her. (And no - I couldn't combine those two errands as I needed the bread for lunchtime, and the prescription wasn't going to be ready until mid afternoon.) For those reading back on this later we are only currently allowed out for a few set reasons:
- One form of exercise a day - alone or with members of our household
- To buy essential shopping - food or medicines
- For medical appointments or to care for or help a vulnerable person
- For essential travel to work
We're also being urged to try not to use our cars where possible due to the increased potential for accidents and thus added pressure on the emergency services. Thankfully in Harlow we have plentiful shops within walking distance, so this isn't too much of an issue for us. The supermarkets are also starting to recover their stock levels a bit now - thanks to people panic buying there have been shortages of everything from loo roll to eggs for the last few weeks. Indeed, there is one particular item that I am in urgent need of that I now have to go into the town centre for tomorrow - far from ideal! 


Frugal Lockdown Friday

I get the feeling that people are currently falling into two camps. Those who are worried that they have - or at least have the possibility of - a significant drop in income, and have no idea how they will cope; and those who have a suddenly realised that the next few weeks give them the opportunity to get their financial house in order, as it were, with in many cases lower outgoings giving them a welcome little extra cash.  For now - if you are in the second camp, then I'm going to say well done, that's your lightbulb moment. Now make the most of it and follow through. I'n going to try to do another post on this one as well - but for now, those "camp 1" people need some help.

So - this pandemic has hit a lot of people in the pocket. Some will be affected just short-term, and will be able to catch up later, so if that is you, then try to bear that in mind. Others are going to feel a longer term impact. Both need to start taking steps now to minimise the financial pinch though, as the sooner you act, the sooner you can start having an effect.

First things first - take a breath. Ultimately - and while this may sound crazy, it IS only money, and there are very few unfixable situations in personal finance.  Learn your priorities - so the roof over your head - rent or mortgage. Council tax. Heat, light, water. And food - for your family and any animals in your household. Some people might have child support payments. Some of those are fixed costs - which is an advantage as it can help with budgeting - the more things you can fix the costs of, the easier to keep track. Council tax may prove to be an immediate easy win for a small monthly saving - if yours is currently paid over 10 months then switching to 12 monthly payments can help ease the budget, and the money from the two months "off" doesn't just get frittered away because you forget it is there. Similarly with food - sit down and work out your average monthly spend - then set that amount aside each month and you know where you are.

So you have your priority payments - write them down as a starting point, and add up the total cost. Then write down your total income from all sources - if that is uncertain at the moment then write the lowest figure you expect it to be. Subtract the outgoings from the income and whatever is left is your surplus. From that comes all the other things you have to pay for - insurances, service charge if you have to pay it, phone or TV contracts, fuel for cars or other transport costs, and any debt payments you might be liable for among other things. Hopefully there is enough in your surplus figure to cover at least some of your additional expenditure - but if not, then you need to prioritise. This is where different people may take differing views, but I am going to suggest that you put insurances at the top of the list. Also, on the subject of debt - if you have any debt payable to HMRC that would usually be a priority too - and until you hear otherwise, I'm afraid you need to treat it as such, but equally, I'd hope that HMRC come up with a plan pretty soon to help those who need it.  The only other form of debt that needs to be a priority right now is anything "secured" - on your home, notably, or perhaps a car.

There IS wider spread assistance out there - your mortgage company will very likely be willing to offer you a mortgage holiday for example - but be VERY careful to make sure you understand the longer term effects of this, and only take it if you really need to. Also, I'd suggest that if you do take this line, then as soon as you are back on your feet, set up a regular monthly overpayment to try to catch up with the payments that have been deferred. If you need to stop paying things like credit cards for a while, so be it - at this stage a phone call to your card provider to tell them you are struggling might well get a far more helpful response than you would expect - they know that people are having problems, and right now there is some slack out there.

Another thing you can do to feel more proactive is to go through your variable outgoings and work out where you might be able to make savings. Things that we can happily take for granted when things are good, right now, we maybe need to think about cutting back on. That weekly takeaway on a Friday night? The top Sky TV package? (Tip - if you are currently paying for a sports pack added to your TV contract then you can very likely suspect that at the moment as there are no sports to show). A new mobile phone every 18 months? None of those things are in any way either essential, or important. Have a think about anything else that you are paying for which perhaps - right now - you might be able to get payments suspended for - gym memberships could be a prime one here. Are you still in contract for your mobile phone? If so then you may be stuck with those payments for a while - but if not, have a think about what you actually need from your supplier, and then ring and haggle for a good SIM only deal. (Another tip - I'm with EE, get 10gb of data a month, unlimited calls and texts, and pay £8 per month. That deal was agreed off a single telephone call which started with me saying "I think I'm paying too much for your services" - turned out, they agreed! Pretty much whoever you might be with they will have similar deals hiding that they can switch you to).  Other companies that are often good for a haggle include TV & Broadband providers, and even breakdown insurance companies.

There are some great resources out there to help if you're struggling to see the wood for the trees. (Yes, you see the point of that photo at the top now, don't you!) The always reliable Money Saving Expert forums Debt Free Wannabe board - we can take an initial look over your budget, and make suggestions of adjustments that might help. We are also very good at identifying non essential spending, and can offer all sorts of help about prioritising, or even stopping, debt payments. The free debt charities - I'm going to namecheck Stepchange and Christians Against Poverty (CAP) here, and no, you don't have to be a Christian or even religious at all to access their help! If things are feeling really desperate then remember that the Samaritans are always on the end of the phone. There is also the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) and SHOUT - there are people out there who can listen, and sometimes just talking will help.

Stop. Take a breath. you can get through this.


Thursday 26 March 2020

Day 3...

At 8pm this evening something rather special happened - across the UK people stepped outside their doors, leaned out of windows and walked onto balconies to deliver a resounding round of applause as a thank you to all those in the thick of things caring for people - it was originally intended to a gesture specific to thank the NHS, but I think it has extended far beyond that now. Individually a small thing - but at least in our area the majority of households seemed to be taking part - and that added up to a fair level of appreciation. Very special indeed, and very engendered a feeling of togetherness that I think most of us need about now.

 ...In other news, day confusion has started - this afternoon I had to check my calendar to be sure it was a Thursday before confirming to my boss that I intend to treat tomorrow as a "normal" Friday - by which I mean I won't be working. I love my 4 day weeks - but usually on a Friday I would be getting out and about - often a long run by the river first thing, maybe the weekly shop, and possibly a trip to the RSPB reserve with the camera in the afternoon, and in between catching up with the houseworky bits. My plan for tomorrow in the interest of keeping up some sort of routine is to try to stick as closely to normal as possible - MrEH and I will head out for a run/walk first thing, then he'll start work once we are back. I will need to go to the shop at some stage , and there will be various bits to do around the house.

I may manage to get outside with the camera again - today's project was entirely contained within our little balcony, and was inspired when I saw the sun shining through the beautiful anemone flowers.

My macro lens doesn't get as much action as it should these days - but perhaps the next few weeks might be an opportunity to remember how much I love it. I'd also quite like to see if I can get some shots of our resident local birds on and around our feeders, but one thing at a time, perhaps!

I may write a Frugal Friday post for tomorrow - it feels like a good time to post one perhaps, with lots of people feeling that now is a good time to overhaul their finances, and also getting a bit of a "leg up" with an enforced period of lower spending. Keep an eye here through the day if that is something that interests you.


Wednesday 25 March 2020

Day 2

Words and phrases that have come into common use over the last few weeks - Self-isolation, immuno-compromised, and perhaps most of all social distancing. When out for our daily exercise, people are careful to step aside on paths to let others pass, or to step from the pavement into the road when overtaking other pedestrians - and yet people are also being friendlier than usual - there are more smiles, thank you's and brief chats taking place than usual - although we are being told that socially, we must keep our distance, at the same time we as a nation seem to be being more sociable within those limits.

We're trying to find routines currently - MrEH has his office in the spare room as he needs the PC - meanwhile I'm using the laptop set up on the dining table. My company are trying to see this as an opportunity to deal with some necessary tasks which usually we don't have time to complete, while MrEH's workload currently continues much as normal, albeit via a wobbly internet signal. We're trying to get out for a walk or a run early in the day as there are less people out and about at that stage - but we are also aware that on days when there is no shopping to get later, that leaves us with a lot of hours shut in afterwards. We've decided to mix things up a bit with the exercise too - today we went for a slower walk - I took my camera and MrEh his binoculars, tomorrow I plan to run. I also did a strength workout at home today - I'm determined to see how little strength I can lose while all this is going on. For me exercise is a real mental health booster so I am desperate to keep that up.


Tuesday 24 March 2020

Day 1...

...or is it?

It was announced last night by the Prime Minister that the UK is now essentially in lockdown. We have been told that we can only leave the house for very specific reasons. We can do one form of exercise each day outside, by ourselves or with other members of our household. We can go to buy essentials such as food, and to the chemist or for medical appointments, and those who absolutely have to are allowed to travel to work - although there is already criticism that the rules on this are too unclear.

From a personal perspective - the lockdown news was something I truly feared. As a claustrophobic living in a not-that-large flat with no garden, the thought of being imprisoned is fairly terrifying. Before anyone tells me all the reasons why it's needed, yes, I know them, and understand them - my claustrophobia pre-dates any form of conscious thought on my part though so it's not something you can just shrug off, and some empathy for me and those in similar positions would be nice during all this.

The speed of change at the moment is possibly the most astonishing thing. I left work at 5pm last night expecting to be back in the office at 9am this morning to carry on sorting out files to work on at home at a later stage - just 4 hours later I had exchanged messages with my Boss and we had agreed that it would not be possible to continue with this plan. By this morning there was a relatively clear list of businesses which are exempt from the expectation of closing for the time being, and our business was definitely not included in those exemptions, so that at least confirmed our decision was correct. Working from home started today for me - although today was mostly getting things sorted out and set up, and it felt like a rather disjointed sort of day with a lot of just trying to keep busy.

Ironically today was the warmest day of 2020 so far - not though many of us got much benefit. MrEH and I grabbed our exercise first thing with a 5k run/walk, then we popped to the supermarket briefly at lunchtime, but apart from a short potter on the balcony, and putting a bag of rubbish in the bin, that was it.

I have a vague plan that I'd like to try to take a photo a day while this is all going on - whether with the phone or the camera. I suspect like most times I come up with a plan like that it might not last long, but we'll see...


Sunday 22 March 2020

Come back normal, we miss you!

Well - what to say? It felt like a good time to perhaps start blogging regularly again. As I type it feels a little like the world is grinding slowly to a halt, and none of us are able to get off.

For clarity for anyone reading this in years to come, it is 22nd March 2020, and the UK is several weeks into our battle with Coronavirus, COVID-19. I'd say "google it" but I suspect you won't need to - even if you are from a much younger generation, you will have learned about these events in school in the same way that my generation learned about the awful Spanish Flu epidemic at the end of WW1.

Social distancing measures are starting to be taken more seriously by most; all pubs, restaurants, nightclubs and bars have been ordered to close for the duration, although they are allowed to do takeaway food and drink. McDonalds has just announced that all its outlets will be closed from tomorrow, and we're expecting other fast food outlets to follow. The Outer Hebrides ferries are now switched to a lifeline only service after an influx of unexpected visitors flooding to the islands over the past weeks - the Western Isles currently have no cases of the virus and with the limited medical facilities there they are keen to keep it this way.

From our perspective with our social lives centering around the aviation scene, the rugby club and our activities with CAMRA, life feels a bit of a funny shape right now. Events are cancelling left, right and centre - the Royal International Air Tattoo has cancelled, even though nobody knows where we will be at in July it's impossible for them to plan the event. The same applies to Farnborough Airshow which has also taken the tough decision to cancel. All CAMRA events and face to face meetings are cancelled - we had a Great British Beer Festival working party meeting via a microsoft teams conference call yesterday which worked well though. MrEH will be mostly working from home from tomorrow, and I am working frantically to get enough work together that I will have something to do if I have to do the same - it is less of an issue from me as there are only three of us where I work - it's easier to keep distance between us, and as I travel in and out by car there is no exposure risk to or from others.

Amongst all the gloom and scary stuff there are still bright spots. One of my best friends and his lovely wife had their second baby on Friday, another little boy. After a couple of tense days spent in NICU he's now been pronounced healthy and they are back at home.  we spent much of this afternoon out on the balcony potting up plants into our pots for both balconies, which we hope will brighten up our view front and back. Currently we and all those closest to us are fit and well - although like much of the country constantly wondering if "this" or "that" is a symptom of the virus...

I suspect as things unfold writing stuff down here may prove to be somewhat therapeutic - and while I'm not expecting daily posts, I'm hoping to be a little more regular than I have been for a while.

Take care all, stay safe, ration your loo roll (for future readers who are scratching your heads, keep reading subsequent posts and all will be revealed!) and remember to focus on the small wins.