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“Mummy, you’re not going to die are you?” Confined to her bed with symptoms of Covid-19, mum-of-two Kerry Mead felt wracked with guilt at leaving her two children to fend for themselves. And when her eight-year-old daughter voiced fears that her mother was going to die, Mead felt like the ultimate bad parent.
Kerry Mead, 43, who lives in Bristol, has been juggling the practical and emotional aspects of childcare during the coronavirus pandemic totally alone. Even when she was bedridden with her coronavirus symptoms, she didn’t break the lockdown rules or drive her children to seek assistance.
The single mum tells HuffPost UK she feels “insulted and angry” by the actions and excuses of Boris Johnson’s special advisor Dominic Cummings who drove his wife and child from London to Durham during lockdown after his wife developed Covid-19 symptoms.
Mead, mother to son Sam, 11, who is autistic and daughter Ruby, eight, was particularly incensed by the prime minister’s defence of Cummings. Johnson said Cummings had “followed the instincts of every father and every parent”.
“To try and get around it by saying he was just trying to be a good dad is insulting and a kick in the teeth,” Mead says. “It is offensive to other parents up and down the country who stuck to the rules and he is insulting our intelligence with his blatant lies.”
Cummings and the government “are rewriting history and using parenthood as an excuse”, she suggests. “They are basically saying that all the thousands of people who weren’t there for their loved ones as they were abiding by the rules should have used their ‘common sense’ and done it anyway.”
“To try and get around it by saying he was just trying to be a good dad is insulting and a kick in the teeth.”
Mead first started to feel poorly and fatigued about a week after UK lockdown began. It soon got to the point where she could not get out of bed for two days as she was so exhausted and full of aches and pains.
“I felt very anxious and my fear was for my kids and how they would cope if I got worse,” she says. “One night, I woke up and was really struggling with my breathing and had a high temperature and was sweating a lot. I knew I was at the point where I would either start getting better or get a lot worse.”
Mead couldn’t send her children – who could have been infectious – to stay with their dad as he is asthmatic and has another three-year-old child. And the thought never entered her head to get anyone in to help or to travel with her children to seek assistance, she says. They would just have to “get on with it”.
“My children were just left to their own devices and had to fend for themselves as I had no choice,” she says – even when that meant them living off toast and cereal. At one stage, Mead heard Sam telling his sister: “No, you can’t sharpen a knife with a pair of scissors.” In alarm, she dragged herself out of bed despite feeling completely “out of it” and tried to supervise them from the sofa.
“I was amazed at how well my children coped and what they were capable of,” she says. “All they knew about coronavirus was that people were dying from it.”
Mead began to recover after about a week. But since hearing about Dominic Cummings driving to Durham and back, and a 30-mile trip to Barnard Castle that he claims was a means of testing his eyesight, she says she is furious.
“When I was ill, I kept my children in the house with me as I was thinking about the community and the collective responsibility we all have in trying not to spread Covid-19,” she says.
“We have all had to make sacrifices and I believe Dominic Cummings is telling complete lies and drove to Durham as he didn’t want to stick to the rules.
“It is the sheer arrogance and an example of the patriarchal society we live in. Dominic Cummings was well enough to drive 260 miles from London – but not well enough to look after his son. The thought of looking after his own son seems to have been against what he thought he should do.
“But single parents don’t have that luxury. We have to take the burden and weight and practical worries all on our own without anyone to share it with.”
Mead isn’t alone in her feelings about Cummings. There are around two million single parents across the UK and they make up almost a quarter of families with dependent children. About 90% of single parents are women – who are disproportionately affected by pressures caused by the coronavirus crisis.
Dr Emma Russell, a clinical psychologist and single mum to Dylan, 14 and Ben 12, says that not only have single parents been inadequately supported during the pandemic, but that Dominic Cummings’ actions and the government’s defence of him shows disdain for them – and for other vulnerable people.
“If someone does something wrong and admits, ‘Actually, I was selfish’, you would feel more forgiving,” she says.
“But Dominic Cummings does not seem to recognise why people are upset. He should have acknowledged what he did was wrong and say he had made a mistake. I think he should resign.”
Russell adds: “It is not only his behaviour that is upsetting but the way he is being supported by so many of the cabinet.”
Russell, who lives in Hove, says that lockdown’s taken her back to the isolation she experienced when she first became a single parent nine years ago. Her kids’ father is a surgeon who was redeployed to Covid wards so to prevent putting them at risk, he could not see them for the first month of lockdown.
But right at the start of lockdown, Russell herself became ill, only later realising her extreme fatigue and loss of taste and smell may have been coronavirus.
“At the time, I didn’t even think it could be Covid as being ill just felt like another thing to deal with,” says the 48-year old, who doesn’t have any family nearby though describes her good neighbours as a “godsend”.
“It never even crossed my mind to get in a car and drive with my children somewhere. We stayed at home and didn’t go anywhere as those were the rules,” says Russell, adding that Cummings actions feel like “a slap in the face”.
″There were two of them and they both have good jobs. They should have been able to manage without breaking the lockdown rules.
“If we all did what he did, there would be chaos.”
Wendy Doyle, 42, who lives in South Shields in the North East, isn’t a single parent but her husband Nigel who works for an offshore company has been stranded in the Caribbean since February. “I wasn’t expecting or prepared for this pandemic and lockdown or that I would go through it without another adult in the house,” explains Doyle, who has two daughters aged 13 and nine.
“My husband went to work on a six week rotation and should have come back at the end of March. But he has been unable to get back. It was very stressful and I was suddenly thrown into life as a single parent.”
A few days after the schools closed, Doyle became ill with flu-like symptoms and when they persisted, she realised they could be signs of coronavirus.
“I had a temperature, fever, muscle pains, headaches and felt disorientated,” she says. ″I didn’t have a persistent cough but I lost my sense of taste and smell and they didn’t return for about six weeks.”
Despite being overwhelmed with fatigue, Doyle forced herself to function as best she could with no other adult in the house to look after the children. After her daughters became ill with tiredness and temperatures, too, the three of them remained in the house, completely isolated.
“I never contemplated leaving the house as I knew the purpose of lockdown was for people in our situation to stay at home to keep everyone safe,” she says. “Even though there was a car sitting outside, I would never have taken my girls anywhere as that would have been immoral.”
Doyle says she feels as if Dominic Cummings is treating people such as her “like idiots” by trying to justify there were exceptions to the rules due to his circumstances. “There were no exceptions,” she says. “The only exception I remember was for people experiencing domestic abuse.”
Victoria Benson, chief executive of Gingerbread, the charity supporting single parent families, tells HuffPost UK that while many single parents are rightly upset about the news of Dominic Cummings seemingly flouting the lockdown rules, it shouldn’t overshadow the bigger issues facing these families who are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
“Single parents are losing jobs and income, are worried about how they will feed their children, and are agonising over who will look after their children if they get ill,” says Benson. “We are extremely concerned that the Covid-19 crisis will push more parents into poverty.
Those facing the practical and emotional impact of caring for children alone have been “desperate to call on wider family and friends for support”, she adds.
“The Dominic Cummings affair has left many single parents confused about whether they can leave their homes to seek help with childcare and the government must provide greater clarity on the appropriate measures single parents can take to seek childcare and safeguard their families during lockdown.”
Doyle sums up the views of many. “We are in a pandemic and it is an abnormal situation for everyone. However, what Dominic Cummings and his family was experiencing was normal within the pandemic and there was absolutely nothing exceptional about their circumstances,” she says. “I feel infuriated and incensed that he is abusing his position of power to claim there was some wriggle room.”