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When the G7 world leaders gathered in Cornwall in June, Andrew Marr was there and feeling on top of the world. The BBC‘s political inquisitor was in his element, broadcasting his Sunday morning show live from St Ives.

As an enthusiastic painter and art lover, the icing on the cake for him was that their makeshift TV studio was in the ‘fabulous’ Tate St Ives art gallery. 

‘If I go anywhere new there are two things I like to do,’ he says. ‘I find out if there’s any art to look at and if there’s beer to drink. I’ve loved Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures since I was a teenager, so I managed to get to her studio in St Ives and I also found a very nice pub. We were by the seaside too, and the sun came out, so what was not to like?’

Andrew Marr (pictured) caught Covid at last month's G7 summit. Here he tells how it knocked him for six, but could have been so much worse

Andrew Marr (pictured) caught Covid at last month's G7 summit. Here he tells how it knocked him for six, but could have been so much worse

Andrew Marr (pictured) caught Covid at last month’s G7 summit. Here he tells how it knocked him for six, but could have been so much worse

But after a glorious midsummer weekend he returned home to London only to fall seriously ill. Four days after his show went out he was confined to his basement, knocked sideways by an illness which in his understated way he says felt ‘pretty bloody’. Although he’d had two Pfizer Covid-19 vaccinations and taken all the sensible precautions, he’d contracted the Delta variant and it floored him.

Andrew, who’ll turn 62 later this month, had a brush with death when he had a stroke in 2013, and he’s since had cancer (‘it was the kidney, and it was dealt with brilliantly and very fast’). He’s not one to over-dramatise matters, but this latest sickness was serious enough for him to want to share an urgent message.

‘I’m still here and I was not hospitalised, so by that definition I’m a vaccine success,’ he says. ‘If I hadn’t been vaccinated I might well have been carking it in hospital, or at least on a ventilator. So I’m not saying this is a failure of the vaccines, far from it, what I’m saying is just be careful. Even if you’re double-vaccinated, you don’t have superpowers, you can still get ill.

‘Like government ministers I’d been using that glib phrase “mild to moderate symptoms” when talking about people who’d been double-vaccinated getting Covid, but it can be really, really horrible.

‘We have to open up and get the economy moving again, but we also have to realise that this Delta strain is far more infectious than the earlier one, and even if you’ve had two jabs you’re not protected against serious illness. If I had a single thing to say to people it would be not to think you’re invulnerable, to carry on taking the precautions that feel right for you.’

Although Marr (pictured in his studio) has almost fully recovered, he still worries about long Covid

Although Marr (pictured in his studio) has almost fully recovered, he still worries about long Covid

Although Marr (pictured in his studio) has almost fully recovered, he still worries about long Covid 

Sitting with him on the terrace of his house in Primrose Hill, north London, where he and his wife Jackie Ashley moved after his stroke, it’s not immediately obvious it still affects him, except that he cradles his left arm and wears slip-on shoes because he can no longer do up his laces. It did mean, though, that he’d been given both vaccinations by the end of March. ‘I was called early, either because of the cancer or because of my stroke, which affected the left side of my body and means that my left lung doesn’t work as well as it ought to.’

Although he’s done a huge amount of walking during lockdown, it’s clearly still not that easy. ‘I walk very slowly, it’s more like a drunken lurch. My left leg can’t really support my full weight, so I’m still quite unstable. One of my early symptoms of Covid was sneezing a lot, and I actually have to be careful when I do a big sneeze that I don’t blow myself over,’ he laughs. When Covid hit him fully after the early symptoms though, it was certainly no laughing matter.

His scare began on the morning of Friday 11 June when he travelled down to Cornwall. ‘It turned into a very long day. I went by train, wearing a mask and not surrounded by people. But when we were approaching it was clear that Extinction Rebellion protestors had more or less cut off St Ives. We got off the train at St Erth and had to sit around for about two and a half hours waiting to get a bus into St Ives, which is only about five miles away.

‘It was a long day but I was feeling fine. We were by the seaside and there were lots of colleagues from the BBC and Sky there, so it was very genial.

Andrew Marr was looked after by his wife Jackie (pictured together in 2009)

Andrew Marr was looked after by his wife Jackie (pictured together in 2009)

Andrew Marr was looked after by his wife Jackie (pictured together in 2009) 

‘But it’s very stressful pulling together a live show. All the next day, the Saturday, I was talking to my team trying to book guests while also hovering around briefings. We’d been told by French President Emmanuel Macron’s team that it was pretty likely he’d do the show. It was the same with Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, but they both pulled out, deciding to stay inside their ring of steel. I’m not sure if that was because of Covid, or that they were worried about demonstrators. Then there was another big blow. We’d been told we’d have Dominic Raab live in our studio and he pulled out as well, so we had to interview him down the line, not in person.

‘On the Sunday I was up at 4am to start reading and preparing for the show. Later that day we had the same problems getting out of St Ives again, and I didn’t get back home to London until half past midnight. I felt shattered on the Monday, but that was no surprise after the weekend I’d had.

‘By Tuesday I thought I was coming down with a summer cold. I was sneezing, had a bit of a sore throat and a slight headache. I was certainly not feeling great, but there was a lot of pollen around, so I didn’t really think anything of it. And anyway, these early symptoms were not what I expected of Covid. I now think they need to change the guidance about early symptoms, to warn people.

‘Because then on the Wednesday morning it hit me, and I started to feel seriously ill. I’d followed the rules and done about four lateral flow tests while in St Ives [taking swabs from the nose and the throat], and then I took two more lateral flow swab tests on Wednesday – all were negative. I still felt I had a cold but I carried on with the stuff I needed to do, like shopping and taking paintings to the exhibition of my work I was having in a gallery in Bermondsey in south London.

‘I knew I had meetings coming up though, and I was aware that at least two of the team I work with at the BBC are younger and hadn’t been vaccinated, so I agreed with my editor that I should take a PCR test [the more accurate laboratory test]. I drove to a test centre in a huge car park opposite the Hindu temple in Neasden, which was empty except for me.

The 62-year-old warns that even if you're double-vaccinated, you don't have superpowers, you can still get ill. Pictured: Andrew talking to Dominic Raab at the G7

The 62-year-old warns that even if you're double-vaccinated, you don't have superpowers, you can still get ill. Pictured: Andrew talking to Dominic Raab at the G7

The 62-year-old warns that even if you’re double-vaccinated, you don’t have superpowers, you can still get ill. Pictured: Andrew talking to Dominic Raab at the G7

‘I was starting to feel worse and worse so it was no surprise when I was pinged on my phone on Thursday at 8am, telling me I had Covid and I must isolate and not leave my house for ten days from when I first had symptoms. The fact I’d taken six lateral flow tests that were all negative, when during some of that period I was certainly positive, makes me wonder what the point of them is. If we’d put all our effort into making PCR tests even more available and forgotten about lateral flow tests, would we have been in a better position?

‘By then I had a nasty, vice-like headache, with pain behind the eyeballs that wouldn’t go away. I felt queasy and started to get shivers and shakes with my temperature going up and down all over the place, together with muscle ache and tiredness and a general feeling of malaise. The last time I’d felt like that was 25 years ago when I had hepatitis.

I’M ALL FOR FREEDOM …BUT BE CAREFUL

With more restrictions about to be lifted, Andrew urges caution on everybody’s part. ‘We’re going into a really strange period now with all the restrictions being lifted, which I think they should be as we have to get back to normal some time. But as a result there’ll be a big spike in infections and a lot of people will fall ill. And of course the real danger is there’ll be a further mutation or variant.

‘Until now we’ve been ordered about by the government with restrictions and fines, and told how many people we can have at weddings and funerals – that mattered a lot to me because my dad died last June and we could only have ten people including the minister at his funeral in Scotland.

‘For a lot of people that was beginning to feel oppressive. But in the next phase we’ll all have to take more responsibility for our own health. Many will continue to wear masks and will decide not to go to a concert or a crowded restaurant, others will feel differently. I can see tensions growing between people who remain worried and those who flaunt their freedoms.

‘Nobody knows everything about this, it is a developing disease. Boris Johnson has talked about everybody who’s been double-vaccinated being able to do what they want, but I’m not sure. I think there are bumpy times ahead.’   

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‘If the worst moment of my stroke was finding myself lying on the bedroom floor unable to get up, the worst moment of this came halfway through my period of self-isolation. The previous day I’d had a really bad throat and terrible sweats, going from really cold to really hot, then I improved and I thought, “That’s a relief.” But the next day I went downhill again. I was worried then that it would continue to go up and down, that maybe I’d get long Covid, and I was anxious about whether I was going to recover properly.

‘All the time I was doing virtually nothing. I read obsessively, but I was too ill to read what I would call ‘serious’ books, I’d start them but I just couldn’t focus so I had to put them down. I didn’t want to watch TV and wasn’t even that interested in the news. I managed to draw a little, otherwise I was lying down listening to music, including a lot of Benjamin Britten.

‘I kept gingerly getting up and trying to sit at my desk or on the sofa, but then I’d find myself having to creep back into bed again for another rest. I was slightly chesty, and I was aware of my damaged left lung, but luckily that never developed into me being unable to breathe or being hospitalised. I’ve done my time in hospitals, I wasn’t looking forward to going into one again. I was genuinely surprised how ill I was though.

‘Jackie looked after me brilliantly – she’d bring coffee and food downstairs and leave it for me. I thought I was tough, and I’m someone who tends to shake things off quite quickly. But I didn’t shake this off – I needed my full ten days in isolation.

‘My sense of smell and taste also went. Like a lot of vain old men I use aftershave, Acqua di Parma in my case which is pretty strong, and I couldn’t smell it at all. I also always open a canister of coffee in the morning and have a good sniff to wake myself up but I couldn’t smell or taste that.’

Although he thinks he’s now almost fully recovered, his concern about long Covid continues. ‘I’m monitoring myself all the time for brain fog, but there’s no sign of it yet. I know of one person who says she reads but can’t take anything in and remember it. And she has a high-powered job, so that’s worrying. The cognitive effects worry me constantly.’

Andrew wasn’t at the beach barbecue thrown by Boris Johnson on the Saturday night near St Ives which was criticised for its lack of masks and social distancing, and no one else in his team came down with the illness. He remains unsure how and where he caught it, though he does believe it was some time during the G7 summit. His stroke came from over-exercising on a rowing machine, so might trying to pack too much in have been a contributory factor in him falling ill this time?

‘It could certainly be stress-related, I was working very hard that weekend,’ he says. ‘Jackie went through with me hour by hour what I’d done in St Ives. ‘Tot it up and it’s too much,’ she told me, ‘You’ve got to put your foot on the brake a bit.’ I got a good talking-to and I’m trying to be very quiet at the moment.’

Andrew’s ebullience and determinedly glass-half-full attitude continue when it comes to his work though, and he’s just signed a new contract for his BBC1 Sunday morning show. ‘I think politics will be even more turbulent and interesting in the next ten years than it’s been in the last ten, and I haven’t lost any appetite for it.’

As he heads out to walk up the road to buy his newspapers the message is clear. And the chances of his slowing down seem pretty slim. ‘I’m impulsive and have a butterfly mind,’ he says. ‘That won’t change and I’ll continue to work hard because it’s really boring to just sit around. I have an absolute horror of boredom.’ 

Andrew Marr’s latest book Elizabethans is out now in paperback. For his artwork visit andrewmarrart.co.uk   

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