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It was the TV and radio coverage that Sebastiano Piva first noticed. His visit to northern Italy was meant to have been a relaxing trip to see family, but the increasingly frequent news reports about coronavirus were starting to alarm him. When the time came to go home, as a precaution, Piva let his housemates know he would be self-isolating, despite not actually visiting any of the towns in lockdown. They weren't too happy about it.
"I live in a shared three-bed house in Finsbury Park," says Piva. "My housemates told me that his work had told him, if I was going back home, he should also have to self-isolate, or he would have to move out for two weeks somewhere else."
"Or," his housemates told him, "I could find somewhere else to self-isolate."
COVID-19 – otherwise known as coronavirus – is coming to a town near you. The virus, which originated in Wuhan in China, has spread across the world, causing stock markets to crash, supermarkets to empty and supply chains to halt. There are 90 confirmed cases in the UK at the time of writing, meaning the likelihood of it spreading further is high.
People returning from coronavirus hotspots like northern Italy and China are having to self-isolate, which Public Health England describes as remaining "indoors and avoiding contact with other people", usually in the place you live. But how exactly do you do this when you share a house with other people?
Although Piva was sympathetic to his flatmates' requests, he was torn. "The conversation was running on two levels," he says. "How it was affecting me personally – I pay rent, it's my house, I would like to go back. What if I didn't have any other options? On the other hand, there was my social responsibility. Those were the two things that floated in my mind." In the end, he went to stay – and self-isolate – at his cousin's house.
If coronavirus spreads as much as it's predicted to, this is a situation many people in the UK will have to deal with. According to government figures, there were 497,000 homes of multiple occupation (HMOs) in England and Wales in 2018. As the cost of renting has continued to increase, and the number of people living alone has continued to fall, it's likely that even more people live in shared accommodation now, making the containment of a virus harder than ever.
Here are some tips on how to self-isolate if that sounds like you.
How do I self-isolate if I share a house with other people?
Public Health England released a blog this week explaining what self-isolating means, and who exactly should be doing it. When it comes to how on earth you self-isolate in a shared house, the answer is to stay in your room and, er, clean loads. They advise you to isolate yourself in a "well-ventilated room" with the windows open and your door shut, and to only come out when necessary.
What do I do if I have to share a bathroom with other people?
If you're one of the lucky ones with an ensuite (e.g. a millionaire or an international student), containing the spread of coronavirus will be a lot easier. However, if you're one of the many who have to share a bathroom with your housemates, then the advice is to get organised with your bathing.
Public Health England says that if the self-isolated person has to share a loo, the household should devise a rota for washing, with the person in self-isolation using it last and then "thoroughly cleaning the bathroom themselves" (just when you thought your near brush with death couldn't get any worse). They also advise making sure you have different hand towels to everyone else.
I've run out of my daily essentials (crisps, bread, choccy). What do I do?
Internet shopping is your friend. Also, call in a favour to friends and family to drop stuff off for you. Maybe your housemates will help if you haven’t pissed them off enough already.
How do I use my shared kitchen?
The official advice on sharing a kitchen is to use it when no one else is in there, which might mean you'll have to wait until 10PM to have your Supernoodles. Public Health England advises wearing a face mask if this isn’'t possible, and taking your food back to your room. If possible, wash your cutlery and plates in a dishwasher, and don't use plates other people have used.
How do I self-isolate if I'm in student halls?
You're advised to stay in your room and only leave when necessary. Apply the above advice when it comes to using a shared kitchen and bathroom, and wear a face mask if possible. Maybe watch some Netflix? I hear Love Is Blind is good?
Essentially, self-isolating in any kind of shared accommodation is going to be hard
"The disproportionate percentage of average incomes consumed by average rent means that way more people are sharing homes and living in homes of multiple occupations long after they would wish to do so," says Portia Msimang, project coordinator at Renter's Rights London. "Obviously living with more people is going to increase your risk of exposure."
For the lucky ones, it might be advisable to stay with family if you can't self-isolate from your housemates. But not everyone has the luxury of a spare room near where they work or live.
"I think it's interesting in terms of epidemics, be it coronavirus or anything else," says Msimang. "I do think certainly living in such close proximity with many people could have an impact."