On Monday, a major change to lockdown will begin: people with underlying health conditions in England who have been shielding since March will be able to meet up outside in groups of up to six people, while those who live alone will be allowed to form a “support bubble” with one other household. The government has said high-risk people will no longer need to shield at all from 1 August.
This should be a moment of relief. Shielders have in many ways become the forgotten millions of this pandemic – told to stay inside their homes for almost four months, unable to even go out for five minutes of fresh air for much of that time, yet receiving remarkably little political or media attention. As the rest of the public begins to enjoy significant reductions in lockdown, it may seem right to give some reprieve to the group who more than anyone else have been cooped up away from loved ones. It is also positive for shielders to have some information at last and a timeline in place (with the caveat that shielding may be restarted if necessary), after months of dire communication.
And yet, talk to shielders, and there is little sense of celebration. A snap poll of 500 shielding people by Buckinghamshire Disability Service found only 15% were confident enough to “start returning to normal” by August. A study by Macmillan Cancer Support shows about a fifth of cancer patients say they will stay indoors until a vaccine or effective treatment is widely available, regardless of changes to government advice.
Just because ministers say shielding can end does not mean that shielders are ready for it to. There is real anxiety that, much like the general easing of lockdown, all of this is happening too soon. This is hardly irrational. Scientists are openly warning that the government easing multiple lockdown rules at once, on top of having no effective digital track-and-trace system, could further the spread of the virus. It is estimated that between 8 June and 21 June 51,000 people had coronavirus in English private households.
When Vicky Foxcroft, the shadow minister for disabled people, recently asked Boris Johnson about protection for shielders in case of a second wave, he said: “We want to see a situation where prevalence is so low, the shielding programme is no longer needed.” But wanting shielding to be unnecessary does not mean it is. New ONS figures show disabled people’s death rate involving Covid is as much as 11 times higher than non-disabled people (it varies depending on factors such as age and sex). As things stand, it is not that the risk to shielders has ended – it is simply that government support will.
When the shielding scheme officially stops on 1 August, statutory sick pay will stop, meaning high-risk employees are expected to go back into the workplace if it is “Covid-secure” without the financial cushion. Diabetes UK says “lives could be put at risk” because of inadequate protections for clinically vulnerable workers. Ministers have also ended the temporary pause on benefit sanctions, despite fears that shielding jobseekers will be penalised if they’re unable to go into a jobcentre.
Meanwhile, all free food parcels currently given to shielders will end, too. The government says shielders will retain their priority for supermarket delivery slots, but this is little use to the many who can’t afford online shopping; having enough in your bank account for a family-size weekly shop is a luxury for some. Many tell me they can’t even find £5 for the delivery fee. The news that a disabled man is thought to have starved to death during lockdown because he couldn’t access food shows all too clearly, at its extreme, what is at risk.
In the coming months, there is going to have to be an acknowledgment that there will be a number of “extremely vulnerable” people who will feel the need to shield past the government’s end date, and for ministers to not cut these people off as if the problem is somehow over. To protect your life in a pandemic is not silly or paranoid but a difficult personal choice based on anything from medical history and childcare to job security. This is a time of incredible stress, where people already coping with disabilities and chronic illness are being asked to deal with the pressure of long-term isolation and daily decisions as to how to stay safe. Johnson’s government has a duty to protect those at highest risk for as long as coronavirus is a threat. No matter what ministers say, this is not over yet.
• Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist