Over 45,000 people in Leeds have been advised to shield themselves in their own homes since March.
The advice was given to people with a variety of health conditions that makes them ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ from coronavirus. They were initially told to stay at home at all times – not even to go outside for exercise – because of the high risks involved if they caught the virus. Many have not seen family, friends or loved ones, even at a distance, for over 12 weeks.
Many thousands in this group have benefitted from the help of community groups and Leeds City Council - including delivering essential supplies and medication as well as walking dogs, posting letters or being on the end of the phone for a chat.
The extreme isolation of this period has been extremely challenging.
Whilst it has been well publicised that COVID-19 poses a significant risk to people aged over 70, 45% of people advised to shield are working age and 5% under the age of 18.
Now, the Government has announced that as infection rates have recently lowered significantly, the advice to shield can now be eased this month – and paused from next month - allowing people to return to a more normal way of life.
From Monday 6 July, people who have been shielding can safely meet outdoors with people in physically distant groups of up to six and those who live alone can form a mutual support bubble with one other household.
From 1 August the Government is planning to “pause” the advice to shield at home for as long as infection rates remain low. This means if people can maintain good physical distance whilst at work, going shopping or attending a place or worship they should be safe to do so. This group does remain at the highest risk though, and all members of the public are being urged to do their part to help keep everyone safe – by following all instructions around distancing and hand washing.
The big supermarkets have pledged to continue to provide priority supermarket delivery slots for people in the shielding group, but to access this, they must be registered on the national database before 17 July. This can be done by telephoning 0800 028 8327.
Two people who have been shielding, Kauser Jan and Penny Rymer, explain what the experience has been like for them. Due to underlying health conditions, both have been shielding since the beginning of March.
Kauser, 55, who suffers from a number of chronic lung conditions, is assistant headteacher at Bankside Primary School in Chapeltown. She said: “It’s been an extremely difficult few months. My mother died at the end of February, and then just a couple of weeks later I received a letter from the Government telling me to shield.
“The most difficult thing is that I’m usually an extremely busy, independent person, with lots of places to go and lots of things to do, so all this suddenly stopping has been very strange. To me, it’s all about giving rather than receiving and so I’ve found it hard to have to accept help from people around me. I decided not to accept any of the help and support available from the Government, as I felt I could cope alone. As well as this, some friends of mine who are vegetarians got a food parcel full of meat and as a Muslim, I wondered what I’d end up getting!
“I celebrated my birthday whilst shielding. Usually when my family ask what I want for a present I tell them nothing as I don’t need anything. But this year was different. I asked them all to buy me a rose which would symbolise them and I could look out into the garden and think about all those I love.
“My family have been wonderful. They’ve brought me shopping and we’ve managed to have snatched conversations on the doorstep as well as a lot of video calls to keep in touch.”
She added: “Overall, it’s been about catching up at home with those things I don’t normally have chance to do because I’m so busy. But I’m looking forward to getting back to a normal routine. I love my work and it’s been far too long since I walked through the school gates and saw the children’s faces. And just being able to visit my favourite coffee shop to read and crochet will be wonderful.
“My main concern as lockdown eases is how other people will behave. You hear about all the stories of people ignoring social distancing and this is a real worry for me.”
Penny Rymer is a business administrator in Leeds City Council’s Health Partnerships Team. An added challenge for her has been home schooling her two children – Josie, 9; and Jack, 7 - who usually attend Gledhow Primary School.
She said: “I have a pre-existing health condition and at the beginning of the pandemic, I went into the office. As my boss works in Public Health he understood the risk and told me to go straight back home. Just after that I received official advice to shield and I’ve been at home ever since.
“I’m just wanting to return to a sense of normality – even something as simple as the children waking up at a set time, putting their uniforms on and heading off to school instead of having me telling them to do their school work!
“My husband got into a routine of going shopping at quiet times and going to the less populated shops. He’d never go to a supermarket and if there were lots of people and queues then he’d go to a different shop.”
She added: “Even though the shielding guidance is being relaxed, I’ll still be extremely cautious. I can’t see myself going to restaurants, crowded public places or on public transport for quite a while. I love the outdoors and I’m just looking forward to being able to enjoy the countryside again.”
Councillor Rebecca Charlwood, Leeds City Council’s executive member for health, wellbeing and adults, said:
“There is no doubt that the relaxation of these measures will be a welcome relief for many people, but we should all remain cautious.
“By the start of August, people may have been shielding for over 16 weeks. So now, as they begin to go outside, everyone needs to help them – by maintaining physical distancing; keeping up with good hand washing; and when masks are not being worn, catching coughs and sneezes in their elbows. It would be a terrible shame if this group of people, who haven’t been able to get out or see people, couldn’t do so.
She added: “The much-anticipated changes might cause anxiety and stress – particularly for those who are more vulnerable to the virus or who have existing mental health concerns. Some people may find the end of lockdown difficult and it may take time to adjust when returning to shops, traffic, transport or work. I hope that those people are able to move through it as best as they can and at their own pace. We all have a part to play to support this.”
Anyone concerned or anxious about the shielding changes, can call the Leeds Coronavirus Helpline on 0113 378 1877 or talk to their GP.