Cruelty over shielding

Picture of two young white women with a young white girl standing in front of them. The image is framed by an orange and red pattern with the BBC logo at top left.
Isolation Diary: Kate Monaghan, Holly Cocker
and daughter Scout

At the weekend the government announced that the rules for people who are under medical advice to stay indoors to avoid catching Covid-19 at all costs as they are likely to become severely ill if they contract it, mostly those with immune systems compromised by their condition or medication they are taking for it, or with impaired lung function (e.g. asthma), were changing as of today (Monday): they were to be allowed outside once a day, either with someone they live with, or with someone else if they live alone. At the same time, it was reported that a large number of people had been removed from the shielding list with the support withdrawn. I follow a lot of disabled people on Twitter and many of them reacted with incredulity to the announcement. The BBC interviewed some people who had been shielding and they said that they intended to remain inside for a few weeks to make sure that the infection rate continued to drop, as the government was claiming.

I’ve been listening to the BBC Ouch podcast for some time and during the lockdown period it has featured contributions from Kate Monaghan and her partner, Holly, who has been shielding because she is on anti-rejection drugs following a kidney transplant. At one point the couple go for a walk in a rural area so as to get out of the house with minimal risk; being shut in the flat with minimal exercise has also had effects on Kate’s physical health as well as the stresses of being shut in together with a small child. I asked another disabled friend whether she would be “taking advantage” of the new rules and she told me that this was the most she would do — go to an isolated area such as a secluded woodland once in a while so as not to bump into anyone — but would not be getting back to normal for some time. In fact, this is what many people who are supposed to be staying indoors all the time have been doing already: the advice to stay indoors was always just advice, while the lockdown (requiring people to stay at home other than when working, exercising etc. and abstain from social visits and travelling for pleasure) was a legal requirement. Both government and media have been conflating these two things routinely — this may well partly explain the continual breaches of the regulations by members of the public throughout the initial lockdown — and we see the same in the coverage of the new ‘rules’ for shielders.

Personally, I find it cruel for the government to make this sort of announcement at a time when trust in anything they say is at such a low as a result of the Cummings affair, when in many places people have abandoned all pretence of social distancing (see the pictures of crowded beaches this past weekend, which were not compressed pictures unlike the ones of ‘covidiots’ in parks circulated in March) and public spaces are increasingly crowded, and when in many places admission rates appear to be going up again, likely to be the result of infections which occurred during the VE-Day festivities in early May. It will get increasingly difficult to find those places that are free of crowds. In Spain, after they first released their lockdown (a real lockdown, where factories were closed and nobody was allowed out other than for grocery shopping and medical necessities for weeks and children only for the latter), an hour or so was set aside each day for the medically vulnerable to exercise and get fresh air and others had to be off the streets. Here, it could be possible to set aside certain parks for that purpose, but we see no sign of that happening and people will have to get to the parks somehow. It is particularly cruel to children who are shielding who may not fully understand the necessity and who see their friends playing outside and hear that adults in their position can go outside, but whose parents say they can’t.

It is widely understood that government announcements about easing lockdown restrictions bear no relation to what scientists say about infection rates: they are mostly concerned with getting the economy working again, hence the reopening of schools this week and the talk of reopening a lot of retail businesses this month. They are only interested in money and have a pathological aversion to public spending on pretty much anything except war. Daily newspapers have come to be full of propaganda, joyfully heralding the latest relaxation of restrictions on economic life while ignoring scientific evidence that it is not safe. I am hearing rumours that both companies and the NHS are preparing for another spike in infections next month. Some aspects of lockdown do need to be reconsidered: the elderly people deprived of family visits or even social contact with other residents in their homes by stringent internal lockdowns and whose health is suffering greatly (many of them have dementia, which has been exacerbated) as well as the mental health patients who have lost all visits and trips out as well as seeing plans for their moving to more open environments put on hold. As for shielders, some have been going out already and they could not all have been expected to have the patience to never leave home, let alone never go outside, for an indefinite period. However, this is really the wrong time to make an announcement that they can do this now when they could not before. It is not safer than it was a week or two ago; that much is obvious.

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