Synonymous with the first year of this pandemic are words we are all familiar with, enough so that we speak in ‘buzzwords’. We were all in ‘isolation’, following the mandate of ‘wash your hands’. ‘Quarantine’ was another word that entered out lexicon. ‘Lockdown’ one, two and three were all beyond scary, punctuated with protests ostensibly in the name of ‘freedom’.

‘Shielding’ is the one buzzword that has been less covered — and when it has, it is a typecast of a demographic.

Exposed shielders

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been told that we must protect the elderly, the ‘vulnerable’ — and that people will have to ‘shield’ to protect themselves from Covid-19 in the varying ‘waves’ that we have seen. But those who have been shielding have been let down, and the government ought to be ashamed. Individuals identified as being ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ have been advised ‘stay inside’ from day one, as they are more at risk from Covid-19. That means having to stay at home, distancing — and having to rely on others for supplies such as vital medicines and food.

In an article dated 16 February, the BBC reported that an extra 1.7 million people will be added to the list of those shielding, following new modelling of data. But now, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has confirmed that shielding will stop again on 31 March. Does this not seem almost pointless, with just over a month between these two dates? Does it not suggest that those shielding are now somehow seen as disposable, given that the Prime Minister has warned us about a potential third wave coming to the UK?

Shona Louise, 23, is a freelance writer and photographer. She had already decided to shield herself when she was added to the ‘extra’ list, owing to having Marfan syndrome, a rare condition that impacts her heart.

She said: ‘As one of the new 1.7m shielders who only received their official shielding letter on February 16, it seems baffling to me that shielding will end so soon.

‘Like many others despite not being told to until recently, I have been shielding for most of the past year, but it really makes no sense to me that officially I’ve only been told to shield for six weeks.

‘I couldn’t even imagine going back to work in person until I’ve either had my second dose of the vaccine or case numbers have dramatically reduced further.

‘I feel lucky that being self-employed I have several streams of income, but I really feel for those who are now being told to return to work despite only having dose one of the vaccine. It feels like reckless advice’.

Vulnerability is often equated with old age. But those who are shielding are not just the elderly. Rather, it is a far more nuanced picture, enclosing a spectrum of people. This reality however is often ignored, and is hardly, if at all, recognised by government ministers.

Isabelle Jani-Friend, 22, is a freelance journalist and is currently studying for her NCTJ qualification. She is also a campaigner for Just Treatment, and recently spoke at an online event alongside Bernie Sanders in support of a ‘people’s vaccine’. Isabelle also has cystic fibrosis alongside other conditions. She has been shielding since March 2020.

She said: ‘Shielding may have changed, but the risk of the pandemic is still very much “there”‘. She added that although she had had the first dose of the vaccine, she does not feel safe in not shielding, and will continue to, as there will be no extra support for people like her.

‘The fact that they’re now recommending removing shielding and that we don’t have to do it anymore is scary because it’s gonna mean that we have even less support, and people are gonna expect us to be going out and about even when that doesn’t feel safe for us’. She also expressed her worry for those being forced back to work and education, without adequate protection in the workplace while lacking full vaccine coverage.

Cystic fibrosis has a life expectancy of just 44 years. Shielding for someone like Isabelle means that she has missed out on one of the years she will be her most ‘well’ — she has written about this for the Huffington Post, recently. 

Business over lives?

The response to the pandemic has been led to favour business and the economy. We’re fixated on ‘pubs opening up’, but there are opinion pieces, tweets, and other forms of media pointing out that those shielding have often been left behind and that lockdowns haven’t ended for all.

Herd immunity was considered as an initial response to the pandemic, with the ‘take it on the chin’ comments live on TV seemingly reflective of a flippant attitude. This did nothing to consider the impact of ‘Long Covid’ — with the NHS now facing a huge demand for help. It is unethical in the extreme. Wired also debunked a few myths about the ‘divide’ on herd immunity.

The latest government strategy shows that shielders and more specifically, people, are at the back of its mind. But in leaving out a particular demographic, business is shooting itself in the foot by failing to accommodate those shielding. These people hold massive economic potential. According to Scope, the total spending power of families consisting of at least one disabled person has an estimated value of £274 billion annually.

We have all lived in a state of flux, characterised by the work/lockdown/going back to work mode.  A so-called ‘new normal’ hasn’t come easy and if it must be so, then it has to work for everyone. Abandoning shielders is plain wrong.

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