Simon, proprietor of the sex shop opposite our Covid-19 testing centre in Soho, insisted on popping a pack of Sildenafil in my top pocket each time I passed his ribbon curtains. ‘Have a lovely weekend,’ he’d say kindly. For several weeks we occupied the delightful Boulevard Theatre at the end of Berwick Street. With all the theatres across the capital closed, it was the only show in town: fast antibody and antigen testing for the public at half the price of clinics in Harley Street.
We first launched the business back in May in the City of London, at the Honourable Artillery Company — convinced that the British people were straining to return to work after lockdown. We imagined big companies would send a tidal wave of their staff through the doors so that they could help their people resume their normal lives and get the engine of the UK’s economy thrumming again.
A team of us worked late into the night setting up our company with the backing of my friend Ian, whose mum died as we went into lockdown and who just wanted to help the city he loved. Apart from me there was Hamish, a razor-sharp investment banker with a Stakhanovite work ethic and a young family to feed on furlough. Head of ops was Rich, an ex-Army captain who last year rescued a man shot outside a Brixton kebab shop by using his belt to tie a tourniquet around the fellow’s bleeding leg.
And around them, a crew of ex-military medics, softly spoken war veterans from the North with extensive tattoos. Some would occasionally disappear off to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean, or they’d tell stories of ‘Afghan’, and everybody was happy for the work. And then there were our fabulous doctors from Leicester, who gave us professional clinic support — Professors Mo Roshan and Rishabh Prasad. I hope we’ll all be friends for life.
To our surprise, we discovered that the City stayed dead. The government said it was doing a fantastic job and had tests for everybody yet very few people were actually being tested. As the weeks progressed, we saw just a trickle of people returning to work. Most were too wary of the virus to travel on the Underground to visit us. Months of slogans and rules had so successfully scared the hell out of the British people that they were all still in their homes in the suburbs.
The individuals who did venture in had interesting stories. Our first two customers were nurses from St Thomas’ Hospital — where Boris was treated for the disease — who had not yet been offered tests. We took care of them for free. One woman entered the testing hall blinking as if she had come out of a bunker, announcing that seeing us was the first purposeful thing she had done with her life since the start of lockdown. She had been isolated in her flat for months and only ever went out to visit the supermarket or walk in the park.
When customers came for antibody tests and they were negative, you could see their disappointment — and the joy on the faces of those who learned they were positive. They’d take a photo of the result and send it to their loved ones. Overall, we discovered that about 15 per cent of men in London had developed antibodies for coronavirus; among women it was slightly less.
With the City of London still in the doldrums, we moved to the Boulevard in Soho, which was much more alive. The theatre used to be the Raymond Revuebar, a famous strip club frequented by Ronnie and Reggie Kray. These days it is a super little place with a 165-seat auditorium, a neon-lit bar and a restaurant — all now sad and shut until next year. I was happy we could be part of the movement bringing Soho back to life, but for now we are having to close because testing isn’t that popular in the unfolding drama of the pandemic. I have a nasty feeling we will be back because the story isn’t over — but Ian always said he wanted us to be put out of a job by the end of the plague. As Berwick Street fruit vendor Paolo barks at me, ‘I had it, but I don’t have it now so it’s over!’
In the meantime, it’s closing night from Soho. Flights to Africa are opening and we’re on our way home.
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