Shielding – life in lockdown for the forgotten millions

Covid-19 lockdown restrictions appear to be all over the place – easing with the opening of schools, pubs and restaurants and a return to the workplace, but then about to be tightened again with the rule of six. The only certainty is that there is one cohort of the population for whom life will not be returning to any kind of normality for the foreseeable future. This group consists of the more than 2 million people who are considered extremely clinically vulnerable and who were advised to shield at the height of the pandemic.

There is a common perception that people in this group are all elderly or sick, when the reality is that the majority of those who were asked to stay at home were under the age of 70 and many were children whose parents shielded with them, although this aspect of the guidance has changed as more information about the effects of Covid-19 on children has become available.

The misconceptions about the shielding community have been reinforced by a lack of clarity in government messaging from the start. The government website listed the over 70s without underlying conditions as “clinically vulnerable” (no need to shield but take extra precautions when out and about) and those of all ages with certain underlying conditions as “extremely clinically vulnerable” (advised not to leave home at all for 12 weeks). This distinction seemed to confuse even the health secretary in interviews at the time. His latest punchy slogan – “Don’t Kill Your Granny” – suggests that his perception of those most at risk hasn’t changed much over the last five months.

My own household consists of an 81 year old, who was not advised to shield (my husband), and a 62 year old who is in the shielding group (me). I am currently fit and well and completed my third marathon last September and a half marathon in November, but I have a rare blood cancer. This means that contracting Covid-19 could prove fatal for me, particularly as I also have mild asthma.

After some discussion about the best strategy for dealing with the restrictions imposed by shielding, my husband decided to stay at home with me in order to avoid the prospect of having to keep two metres apart at home and use different crockery, cutlery and hand towels. I take my hat off to anyone who actually managed to do all that for three months.

Shielding was beset with difficulties from the outset, with the letters informing patients that they were advised to stay at home coming from a variety of different clinicians; some were from hospital consultants and others from GPs, while some people received no communication at all. I’m lucky enough to be registered with a very efficient GP practice, so my letter arrived within a week of the onset of shielding, but I know from various online groups that others were mistakenly told that they were not in the extremely clinically vulnerable group, again due to ambiguous wording in official government advice. Some were told by hospital staff that sending the letters out was the responsibility of GPs and some vice versa, leaving many unsure about what they should do and whether they should register on the government website. Those of us who are computer savvy had the advantage of being able to source excellent online advice from charities such as Blood Cancer UK, but others who didn’t have access to such information were left worried and confused about what they should do.

Securing supermarket delivery slots became an obsession, and hours were wasted on long phone calls to overstretched supermarket call centres, only to be disconnected or to reach the front of the queue and be told that there was nothing they could do to help. After several abortive attempts, and with food stocks running low, I finally registered on the government website to ask for help and, to its credit, the local council was very quick to respond and send a care package. Local volunteer groups were also on hand to offer assistance and, after three or four weeks, the much sought after supermarket slots became available and the care packages could be cancelled.

Thankfully, the start of lockdown coincided with a long spell of dry, sunny weather, and those of us fortunate enough to have outside space were able to enjoy sunshine and fresh air. I set myself a task of walking 5 km up and down the garden every day, which did not endear me to the aforementioned husband when I started wearing tracks in the lawn. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for those cooped up in tower blocks for three months, especially for those with children. A survey for Disability Rights UK has described many people shielding as feeling “isolated, alone, forgotten”.

Shielding was “paused” at the beginning of August, following a government announcement via a late-night tweet at the beginning of June. This sudden relaxation of the guidance came as quite a surprise, as the government’s traffic light system (which appears to have disappeared without trace) had suggested that shielding would continue until a vaccine became available.

We were advised that we could start leaving the house for exercise on 6 July and then return to work from 1 August, when Statutory Sick Pay for shielders would cease. Many of those who had been asked not to leave the house for three months suddenly faced the prospect of returning to crowded or high risk workplaces such as supermarkets and care homes, some having to travel to work by public transport. Despite the assurances that these workplaces would be “Covid safe”, there have been high levels of anxiety amongst workers who have had to make a choice between their health and job security. Research for Citizens Advice has recently concluded that 48 per cent of those in the shielded group could face redundancy.

I have the luxury of being able to work from home, and it has been wonderful to get out into wide open spaces and walk the dog again after being unable to leave the property for so long. However, like many others, I still don’t feel confident to venture out to restaurants or even to meet family indoors, and I can’t see that changing any time soon.

The new cases of Covid-19 are on the rise again. With the imminent arrival of colder weather and warnings of a second wave, concerns are growing about what is in store for the extremely clinically vulnerable over the autumn and winter. If shielding is to be reintroduced, as seems likely, it would be hugely advantageous if guidance were based on a more individualised approach to risk, obviating the need for so many people to be housebound for long periods of time. We can but hope.