Lockdown voices

Capturing the physical and mental health of the nation in lockdown

At the start of the UK’s first lockdown, UEA researchers launched a project to track the health of the nation.

They wanted to understand how lockdown would impact people's physical and mental health.

More than a thousand people signed up and they were followed every day for three months in the first study of its kind.

The participants kept daily diaries on a range of lifestyle behaviours including physical activity, diet, sleep, smoking, drinking, and drug use.

The researchers, from UEA's Norwich Medical School and School of Health Sciences, found that lockdown saw people in the UK eating less fruit and veg, getting less exercise and drinking more alcohol

Many of the participants were also interviewed about their lockdown experiences - as the pandemic unfolded throughout 2020 and beyond.

Here's what they had to say.

Names and images have been changed to protect the participants' anonymity, but the voices, and their stories, are real.

A show poster for Kellar
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A show poster for Kellar
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Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Julie, a mum-of-two grown-up children, had an active social life and was following a special programme at the gym designed for her chronic arthritis.  

"Nobody saw me, I saw no-one"

Following a recent divorce, Julie had lost a lot of weight and says and had been keeping busy overseeing the renovation of a new home. She says she felt “physically and mentally tip top”. But after the pandemic hit and the country went into lockdown she lost “all sense of purpose”.

Her physical activity and social life quickly ground to a halt, she had no access to green space, she rarely left the house, and her diet went downhill to the point where she was just “drinking wine and eating crisps”.  

She said: “My intake of alcohol got to the point where it was almost out of my control. And that was definitely a consequence of [the] Covid [pandemic]. The physical and mental effects meant that I resorted to a crutch, and that was wine for me.”

Despite her disabilities, Julie wasn’t told to shield which made her feel as though she was “not even worth anyone thinking I should look after myself particularly.

“Often-days there was no point even having a shower,” she said. “I would just stay in my pyjamas all day. There was nothing to get dressed for. I may as well sit here and drink until I go to sleep and do it all again.”

“I definitely spiralled into depression really because I felt – what’s the point?”

A show poster for Kellar
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A show poster for Kellar
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University student Lauren was coming to the end of her final year and working part-time when lockdown happened. She had essays to write and her exams switched to online.

"Life slowed down"

"You will hear a lot of hate for online learning,” said Lauren “But actually there are a lot of benefits.

“It is more interactive, and I'm contributing more than if I was there in person. It's just easier to do from behind a screen and actually it's more engaging and interactive than it would have been if you were just sat in a lecture theatre.”

She locked down with her partner and structured her days around work, exercise, cooking and yoga. She says it was the little things like this that kept her going.

“When your world goes small like that, when you are living within those four walls, it's doing the little things and checking them off your ‘To Do List’ that keeps you sane.

“Life slowed down and it felt like, yeah, we didn't really have as many commitments and it was nice and it was almost de-stressing in a way to not have to be anywhere."

“Because it was summer, I almost feel it with these nostalgic rose-tinted glasses with the sunlight streaming in and grass, it’s really weird as it coincided with an awful pandemic.”

But she started binge drinking just to “get drunk”, as well as smoking and vaping more.

“Boredom set in and it's like - if I'm going to drink, I want to get smashed because I kind of need a change of mental scenery.”

And by the time the second lockdown happened in November, social restrictions were beginning to get to her.

“It kind of chips away at your ability to enjoy life,” she said. “Because I can't see my friends, I can't go for a walk, well you can technically, but I can't give my friend down the road a hug, you know, and I'm not seeing anyone that I don't live with.

“It kind of grinds you down. It's like a gradual chipping away of the enjoyment in your life. It is just a low level of rubbish.”

She also found it frustrating when other people didn’t follow the rules.

“I think everyone can relate to that feeling of like, somebody brushes past you and you look at them like, ‘excuse me, do not touch me, this is a pandemic!’

“It's funny how these things give us this ‘us and them’ mentality - like all the people that aren't taking it seriously and we’re the people that take it seriously and you see it all the time.”

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Despite eating well and doing more exercise, Luke, who lives with his partner, found he was drinking more during lockdown and jokes that he was a ‘high functioning alcoholic’.

"More margaritas"

Luke began a new job just days before lockdown starting, and while he was able to work, he found it difficult getting to know his new colleagues in a virtual world.

“It has been tough,” said Luke, who has previously suffered with depression and low self-esteem.

“I work quite well in a team and I'd like to have that team contact and especially come up with new projects. Brainstorming, I like to be in a room with people, engage people's emotions and things and the response - and you can't really do that virtually.”

His partner also switched jobs during lockdown, and they both found it hard working from home in a small flat.

“We’ve literally got the bedroom, living room, kitchen-diner,” he said. “One of us will be in the bedroom talking in a meeting and one must be in the living room.”

But they did make a conscious effort to get out of their flat for exercise.

“I thought we might go a bit crazy. Just sat in the house all day and all night. I started running a hell of a lot. But on the other hand, I probably drank a lot more for quite a considerable few months. So, like a high functioning alcoholic, sort of (laughs).

“More margaritas, or whatever it was, you know?”

“We definitely drank a lot more over the first lockdown. It was just the nonchalance of - the world's going to Sh*t. It was almost like a novelty at the beginning."

“You're only working from the laptop in the morning. You're not going to be face to face with anyone, and you can have a hangover and you almost, get away with it.”

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Gemma, a married NHS keyworker with two children, found lockdown “tough”

"I didn't have time to be Mary Poppins"

Gemma's family needed to self-isolate for two weeks before the country went into full lockdown. But when they were able to go out again, everything had changed.

She said: “The last time I’d been to hospital everything was sort of normal. Then after two weeks, I have never seen anything like it.

“Walking around with the wards all closed and empty beds scattered in the corridors and tape everywhere was quite scary, because we didn’t have much protection and had to bring our own hand sanitisers and wipes in." 

“Our ward was Covid, they had moved all the offices out but they didn’t have room for us, so we had to stay.

“You never really got told anything. Trying to go to work and function with the whole system like, closing, [we were] trying to find our own safety nets for our patients to make sure no-one got missed.

"Going into work was [like] going to fight a battle.” 

Despite being keyworkers, she and her husband decided to keep their children at home for as long as possible. Their exercise was restricted and they experienced the “Corona kilos” creeping on. But she says they did “religiously put Joe Wicks on” to start each day.

But it was home-schooling that caused the most stress and the impact on her children was the “worst bit”. She says that her son “started to get where he didn’t really want to go out” and she found herself just “trying to get through the lockdown so my children weren’t affected”.

“There is the social part,” she said. “They are missing out on their friends, missing out on life, and I couldn’t do anything about that. I couldn’t control it. That was the hardest bit for me emotionally.”

“We tried to keep them safe from it as much as possible, but you can’t. They are exposed to it and whether that will have a lasting effect for their generation, I don’t know.”

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For retired Geoff, who is in his 70s, lockdown was a very happy time.

"We were happy"

Despite having to cancel a big party for his 25th wedding anniversary, Geoff kept up a varied diet with plenty of fruit and veg, took up cycling, and kept himself busy with a range of garden projects.

He said: “For us it was good, whereas for a lot of other people of course it was a desperate situation, isn’t it?”

Before lockdown Geoff and his wife Mary would eat out more often, and their social life was impacted. But he says that “throughout the whole Pandemic I've not felt stressed in anyway at all”.

And it shows his daily mood graphs – a constant 9/10 blue line for happiness, and a low orange line denoting no stress.

Because of his wife’s health, the couple decided that they would “shield her as much as they could” leaving Geoffrey to go out for shopping.

He got to grips with new technology and took up Pilates online which was “not quite so easy when you’re trying to lie on the floor but also see someone on your computer screen”.

Using new technology also meant he could connect with his family more often, including celebrating Mary’s birthday with family and friends on Zoom.

“One good thing to come out of all this is that my daughter now phones me once a week on the way home from work. She’ll have a conversation with Dad, which is quite nice.”

And while the couple were forced to cancel a “big bash” at the village hall to celebrate their wedding anniversary, a paired down more intimate event for six in their back garden in fact turned out to be “rather beautiful”.

Geoff puts a large part of his happiness down to beautiful weather, a “fabulous spring” and being fortunate to have a lovely garden and access to green space.

“Had the weather not been as beautiful as it was,” he said. “And had I been stuck indoors for weeks on end because of pouring rain, I might have gone ‘oh heavens this is awful’.

“But we had such a fabulous spring didn’t we? And just every day I was in the garden. You know, wife was in the garden, we were just - we were happy.”

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Participants in the C19 health and wellbeing study completed follow-up surveys at three and six months after the UK first went into lockdown on March 23, 2020, and they are due to complete their 12-month follow-up surveys soon. They were also invited to submit photos of their lockdown experiences.

The research project is ongoing with further research results due for publication soon.

"We would like to thank all of the study participants for their dedication and commitment, and for sharing their inspiring and sometimes difficult stories. We would also like to thank the community groups that helped us recruit participants."
Lead researcher, Prof Caitlin Notley, UEA's Norwich Medical School