Six months after lockdown began, how are Norfolk’s shielders coping?
- Credit: Tim James/Submitted by Steve Pope
For 19 weeks of this year, more than 40,000 people in Norfolk with underlying health conditions were forced to isolate themselves from the rest of society.
In a practice that became known as shielding, they were left trapped in their own homes and gardens - some without any human contact.
But from August 1, those classed by the government as vulnerable were no longer required to shield from coronavirus and were once again permitted to enjoy many of life’s simple pleasures.
And yet, for many, very little has changed and the end of their shielding nightmare seems a world away.
Laura James, from Norwich, was forced to shield due to her connective disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS) and endured “unimaginable” pain in June, when she broke the news of her father’s death to her mother in a phone call.
The 50-year-old writer, who recently moved to Reepham, has also been coming to terms with the death of her mother-in-law as she tries her utmost to limit social contact.
“With everything that’s happened, we have had a spectacularly bad few months,” said Mrs James.
“I’ve pretty much still been shielding. I have one friend who I see in the garden and, since we’ve moved out of the city, I have been going for walks in the countryside.
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“My mum has moved in as well and has underlying conditions, so we have probably been among the most militant in terms of lockdown and shielding.”
Mrs James, whose books include Odd Girl Out, has sympathy for Boris Johnson and his attempts to handle the ongoing crisis - but says more must be done to help people still stranded at home.
She added: “It is not a government I would have voted for but, equally, it is the most unenviable job and I cannot think of a worse time to be prime minister other than during wartime.
“But the rules are a mess - nobody understands them and they are so complicated.
“People who were told to shield had everything taken away from them on August 1. Now there are people who, up until very recently, were shielding - and now they are back working in supermarkets and schools.
“On the one hand we are being told we are all in this together, but if people aren’t being given the option to shield on the previous basis, they are having to choose between their health and paying bills.
“I think there should be measures in place to protect people if they do have to shield, and it should be done on a personalised basis. This time it should be devolved to GPs and consultations to decide who should shield.”
Steve Pope, from Norwich, is another shielder who “never came out of lockdown”.
But the 64-year-old, whose wife suffers from a lung condition, knows he has had it better than most.
“The bottom line is we know how lucky we are,” said Mr Pope. “We live in a large house with plenty of space, and we are both writers so we are used to working from home together and being in the same building 24 hours a day.
“We recognise it has been less of a psychological strain on us than it has been on others.
“We have had a lot of help from friends which has been brilliant. There has been a lot of talk of people misbehaving, but it has to be said that Covid has brought out the best in people.”
On the prospect of mandatory shielding being introduced for a second time, Mr Pope - a keen Sunday league football player - believes a different approach must be taken.
“The thing is, it should be a matter of personal choice and responsibility,” he added.
“As far as we’re concerned, if Boris says it’s safe to go out, that makes no difference to our personal analysis of the situation. Until we hear it from our GPs, we will not go out.”