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A Shielder’s Story Of Cautious Freedom

August 12, 2020

I am one of those people who were told that from 1 August we no longer needed to shield to protect ourselves from the coronavirus.

While you might assume that, having been trapped inside our homes for the past 18 weeks, we would embrace our newfound freedom with enthusiasm, the reality remains far from it.

I have only ventured out three times in the first week and remain cautious. The guidance almost suggests that we should open our doors, simply forget the rhetoric we’ve had drilled into us over the past few months and get back to “real life”. But for those of us whose pre-existing medical conditions greatly increase the risk from Covid-19, we are naturally a little hesitant to embrace this sweeping change. If I lived in Wales, I’d still be shielding until 16 August.

But on the first official day of freedom in England and Scotland, I, my husband and our dog ventured to Cambridgeshire to see my parents and siblings. One of my sisters and both my parent work with the NHS. It was the first time all of us had been together since our wedding in December. It has been incredibly hard not to see each other for such a long time. While admittedly it was initially a little strange ensuring we all remained socially distanced, we were in the garden throughout and, thankfully, for once the British weather cooperated. It felt, dare I say, in many ways almost normal.

My second trip was a visit to our local open-air garden centre late on a Sunday. Having not experienced a shopping environment for months I was surprised at how few people were wearing masks. While the streets and garden centre were quiet, allowing me and my husband to keep our distance from anyone, sadly the trip confirmed to us that, unless essential, we won’t be making any further visits to shops for now while we can’t rely on others to play their part and comply.

Lastly, I saw a friend. Meeting in the park, we sat safely distanced from each other and anyone else. I drove there and back to avoid passing people on the walk, and as many people are starting to return to the office, the park was quiet. It was a welcome change from the early morning and late-at-night dog walks we have been doing throughout lockdown out of necessity, but also to preserve our sanity these last few months.

Speaking to other high-risk shielders it seems experiences have been mixed. While a few have felt safe sitting outside cafes and restaurants or popping into shops, the majority are yet to take these steps.

Some have had outings to normally quiet coastal locations, now crowded as people holiday in the UK, where social distancing seems completely non-existent. Others, during essential trips to a car mechanic, have found they needed to make several requests for staff to comply with putting on masks and gloves.

Unlike at the start of lockdown, when most people seemed very willing to support those who were shielding, the reality is that many seem to have virtually forgotten the last three months; hugging for pictures on social media, crammed into bars, flouting the use of masks and ignoring ongoing guidance around distancing. They seem oblivious, or indifferent, not only to the risks to themselves, but potentially to those who are more vulnerable around them.

Thankfully, neither myself nor my husband are under pressure to return to the office. I work from home and his employer has been hugely supportive. But many aren’t so lucky. With the guidance now that people should return if their workplaces are deemed “Covid-safe”, vulnerable individuals are, shockingly, having to choose between their work and job security, or their health.

While we all crave some level of normality, for shielders this desire is often overridden by a sense of nervousness. We feara lack of information and support, contradictions between the government guidelines and scientist concerns, and the carte blanche approach to the shielding community who have a whole range of individual vulnerabilities. Throughout the pandemic, in government letters and in the advice online, individuals were told to contact their specialist health teams and independent organisations for advice and support. Yet the reality wasthey could not provide the level of guidance individuals needed or were looking for.

Evidence suggesting that meeting outside is the safest option has encouraged some to try and push themselves to relax a little during what is left of summer but most arechoosing to set their own rules. We are also well aware that the “pause” on shielding may be stopped if infection rates rise, as has already happened in local lockdowns in Leicester, north-west England and Aberdeen.

When shielding was initiated, I discussed with others what we would do once we got our freedom back. We talked about jumping on a plane to somewhere hot, having a big meal out with all our friends and trips to coffee shops. Realistically though, these ideas remain pipe dreams.

The knowledge that, while Covid remains a risk, it is up to us as individuals to remain safe, is in some ways more of a barrier than any official guidance to shield ever could be. While officially the pause button has been hit, for me at least it simply isn’t as easy as pressing the off switch.

Pippa Kent has cystic fibrosis. She runs Now What Can I Eat on Instagram based on her post-lung transplant journey and the food limitations of immune suppression

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