The week before Christmas last year, I went to a Christmas concert at St Paul’s Cathedral. Due to that I ended up in isolation over Christmas waiting for Covid test results, though I did eventually receive a negative. I wrote about it at the time, but never finished it. I thought it was an interesting comparison to when I actually caught Covid.

The leadup

I first booked the concert in late November. At the time, our numbers had declined from the initial post-lockdown peak, and perhaps I expected them to continue to go lower. But I also knew that we’d changed our close contact requirements to only require isolation until receiving a negative test. So I didn’t expect being a close contact to be too disruptive (well, so long as I didn’t actually catch it…).

By the time the concert came round, Omicron was definitely making its presence known. Official Victorian case numbers hadn’t yet risen significantly, but it was clear NSW numbers were escalating rapidly and we could be next. There was a lot more concern, and we’d even gone back to seven days of isolation for close contacts at certain significant exposure sites. I told a co-worker that since I had a ticket and had been looking forward to the concert I’d still go - but that I wasn’t sure I’d make the same decision if I’d been buying a ticket that day.

My expectation beforehand was that the concert was likely large enough that at least one positive case would attend, but that it was unlikely I would catch it. As it turned out, I was correct on both points, though obviously I can’t tell whether that was good judgement or luck. At the time masks were only recommended, not required, but more than half the audience (including me) were wearing them.

The concert

I have to say: It was a great concert. I think it’s the third concert I’ve been to at St Paul’s, and it’s a lovely venue. There were some carols and other Christmas songs I knew, and others that were completely new to me.

Afterwards, there were lit up Christmas displays and crowds of people around Fed Square and Southbank. To me, most notable was this Christmas star on a bridge across the Yarra:

Christmas Star (Melbourne)

Multiple cancelled trains meant I didn’t get home till 1:30AM, which wasn’t ideal, but I’d had fun. It was a good preparation for Christmas.

The nervous wait

I think it was only after attending the concert that I really thought through the logistics of getting tested. The one time I’d been tested, back at the tail end of the 2020 second lockdown, there had been no queue and I’d got results back in less than 24 hours. This time, it was different. There were an increasing number of stories of how difficult it was to actually get tested, let alone how long the results might take to get back.

I have siblings in that choir (though they weren’t in those particular performances), so I was hearing rumours about positive cases by Tuesday. However, there had been four different performances over the weekend. I had no way of knowing whether they were actually worried about the performance I attended.

From what I later heard, I think that some of the performers later tested positive. That would have been slightly more concerning, given all the singers would have been unmasked, and singing is known to spread Covid better. But still, it’s a large hall, and I was nowhere near the front.

If I’d been confident that I’d be required to get tested, I might have tried to get tested a couple of days earlier. That would have been less disruptive to me personally. However, given the system was already under heavy load, there was no point getting tested just in case. And it might have turned out a wasted effort.

I don’t know what DHHS were doing, but by Thursday, it was a couple of days after I’d heard those rumours, and I’d heard nothing more. Had I somehow got away with it?

Maybe they were waiting for further test results before notifying all attendees. Maybe it was actually another attendee testing positive that triggered the notification. Or maybe they were just really slow.

The notification

It was 4PM on Thursday (less than 48 hours to the planned family Christmas lunch). I was working from home, my phone pinged, and somehow I just knew what the message would be. Sure enough, I was required to get tested within 24 hours of receiving the notification, and isolate until I received a negative result.

By that time I had a fair idea that things were going to go badly. But it was important to me to try what I could to get tested earlier.

The testing centre closest to me, the website said it was open till 5PM. I was pretty sure when I’d driven past it I’d seen 4PM, but hey, worth a try (yes, it was already closed…). One slightly further away closed at 7PM, and listed a half hour wait time. However, when I arrived I was told it was closed for the day, and turned away. And at that point, it didn’t seem worth trying further afield.

Now, to be clear, I knew that people had been finding it difficult getting tested, so I wasn’t necessarily surprised that I was turned away. But I think I can reasonably be annoyed at being turned away more than two hours before closing time at a testing site that the government website had listed as having half hour queues. Had it listed, say, 120 minute queues (as some other testing stations were) I might not even have bothered trying.

Christmas Eve

The following day was Christmas Eve. The drive-through testing site closest to me was closed over the long weekend, so I headed for a slightly further away walk-in clinic (which was actually the place I’d been tested with ease in 2020).

I’d intended to be there half an hour before opening, and ended up only ten minutes before opening. I’d expected queues, but I hadn’t expected the queues to be quite so long, nor had I expected it to take so long processing each person. I’d expected it to take an hour, and wouldn’t have been surprised at two hours, but I don’t think I expected it to be all day.

Maybe if I’d gone there half an hour earlier I would saved two hours queuing and got test results back a day earlier. Or maybe almost all the people ahead of me had been queued up two hours before opening and it would have made little difference.

But I wasn’t alone in having difficulties. Some of those in the queue around me were talking about having tried three or four sites and been turned away before coming to this one. I’d prefer it to be shorter, but I was just glad to be in a queue and know I could expect to be tested - I wasn’t about to try elsewhere.

After a while of very little movement, we were told “Well, it might take a couple of hours, but we will see all of you”. That time estimate was starting to feel optimistic, but I still didn’t really expect it to take all day.

Then it got bizarre. After not much more than an hour of testing we were told “We have a break now, and will be back in 40 minutes”. It was a warm day, and I was glad to have got in the shade before then. Then around came someone with water and Zooper Doopers. We’d have preferred people actually getting tested and the line moving, not little gestures to make us more comfortable queueing while nothing moved. And it seemed particularly odd encouraging a line of mostly masked* people in a testing queue to take something that would get them to remove those masks…

The view from the queue

A while later, people not far behind me in the queue were told that they wouldn’t be seen at all today. Then given a list of places they could go to the following day (Christmas Day) to try getting tested. This was after they’d been in the queue for at least 1.5 hours, and also after being assured earlier that they would definitely be seen. They were rather unhappy about it, and in my opinion justifiably so.

Fast forward a little, and we were told the closing time was 2PM, and when the samples were collected, there was no possibility of continuing testing. By that point we would have been in the queue for over five hours. By 1PM it seemed fairly clear that we might be close, but we wouldn’t make the front of the queue by 2PM. But after already being there four hours there didn’t seem a lot of point going away and then trying to find another place Christmas Day.

As it was, I was maybe five or six from the front of the queue when the sample collection car turned up. They decided to send off what they had and keep testing anyway. I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d been turned away, but I doubt I’d have been obediently queuing up again Christmas Day. Still, I was glad not to have to worry about it - though maybe also a little too tired to care…

And so, I got inside. Only 5.5 hours after joining the queue. I went through the identification process. I declared my complete absence of any relevant symptoms. My nose and mouth were swabbed. By a nurse wearing reindeer antlers (who said the Christmas spirit was dead?)

* It was an outdoor queue, and I’m usually not a fan of masking outdoor - but I was willing to make an exception there.

A different kind of nervous wait

Once I walked out that door, I’d done what I could to try and attend the Christmas lunch. For better or for worse, it was completely out of my hands. The nurse said “You will hopefully get results within 48 hours”. It was theoretically possible they would come back within 24 hours - but I don’t think I considered it likely.

I went home and worked late into Christmas Eve. I saw the sunset (technically, it was probably stepping outside my property to see it, but there was no-one else about).

A Christmas Eve sunset

Much of the rest was what I’d already planned to do: I wrapped Christmas presents. I watched a Christmas film I hadn’t seen before. I chatted with siblings and friends.

The situation wasn’t ideal, but I worked through it in my own way. It was the uncertainty that was hard. I had no reason to expect results, and yet part of me woke up Christmas Day still half-hoping for a text saying “Yeah, you tested negative”. That was what had happened last time, after all.

I then kept checking my phone for notifications the whole morning and into the afternoon, waiting for the last minute reprieve I didn’t really expect. I left the presents outside my gate for my brother to collect on his way past. And in the evening, he left me some things from family members.

Boxing Day

And so the wait stretched on into Boxing Day. There was a dinner for extended family that evening near the bay, so I planned to go walking in the afternoon, then on to dinner. That is, if I was even allowed out of my house.

The promised 48 hour mark passed, and still no test results. But shortly afterward they arrived. I tested negative - exactly as I expected the entire time. And so I headed out.

It was really nice being out in the wind and admiring the waves:

Looking out on the bay (Beaumaris)
The waves roll in... (Beaumaris)
And break... (Beaumaris)
A rock pool (Beaumaris)

There was even some bird life:

The pied cormorant at home (Beaumaris)
Enjoying the free seats (Beaumaris)

Obviously I’ve served a full Covid isolation now, but back then it had probably been the longest time I’d spent without going out for a while, and I was glad to be free. Free to leave my property. Free to walk by myself. Free to be at a dinner with people I don’t see so often.

And that’s really the end of my story. Life resumed as normal.

Would you have attended the concert if you’d known?

As it turned out, I spent three or four times longer actually trying to get tested than I did in the concert. I spent nearly 72 hours in isolation, missing things that I’d planned, including the family Christmas lunch.

So it’s an obvious question to ask: Would you have gone if you’d known? But I think it’s the wrong question. Yes, the process of getting tested was much more complicated than I was expecting, and if I’d known everything that would happen as a result of attending that concert, maybe I wouldn’t have gone.

But it wasn’t just about one concert. It was about a way of life: the fabled “living with Covid”. I knew that if I was socially active enough, I was likely to be caught as a close contact sooner or later. And that might inconvenience me and prevent me from doing something else I had planned.

And part of the point was that, like so many pre-Christmas events, the concert wasn’t something that could just wait for later. Yes, Christmas & New Year events almost certainly accelerated the Covid spread. Maybe we would have been better with fewer of them. But we couldn’t just say “Wait until January and the dust has settled from Christmas / New Year, then celebrate Christmas”. A week before Christmas is a sensible time for a Christmas concert. Even though, as it turned out, it meant that I missed Christmas Day.

This wasn’t the only thing I went to over that couple of weeks. Trying to avoid Covid contact would have meant missing doing other things that I valued - other things that, as far as I know, had no Covid exposures. And some of them - work or family functions, for example - can’t be so easily avoided anyway.

As it happens, Christmas lunch or no Christmas lunch, it might even have been the best time it could have been for me in December. Earlier that week I’d been to a birthday party with most of the family members who were at that Christmas lunch, so it wasn’t like I was missing out on seeing those people. The Boxing Day dinner I mentioned included more distant relatives I don’t see often. The week before and the week after Christmas I saw different visiting inter-state relatives. And the start of the month I’d been on holiday in the Alps, even briefly venturing interstate. Missing or disrupting any of those things would have been more annoying.

The conclusion

This was a part of the “living with Covid” experiment that I didn’t want, but expected that I would encounter sometime. Christmas wasn’t the best time, but I don’t know there’s really a good time to be forced into isolation.

I think it’s important to say that it didn’t ruin Christmas for me. But also to say that it felt like an unnecessary sacrifice. I followed the rules, and did “the right thing”, and there’s some comfort in that. But it hurt me without clearly benefiting anyone.

Like I’ve said, rightly or wrongly I didn’t think it likely that I would catch Covid in that concert environment. But it was still able to completely disrupt my plans. As it was, it was nearly six months until I actually caught Covid - not in the concert hall, but at a family dinner.