The handling of those highly vulnerable to coronavirus speaks volumes about attitudes towards chronic illness and disability
Sun 28 Jun 2020 13.25 EDT
Last modified on Sun 28 Jun 2020 15.29 EDT
For more than 2 million people in England, the effects of the pandemic have been especially punishing – forcing them to keep a distance even from others in their household. Those who have been judged clinically extremely vulnerable, including transplant recipients and those undergoing some cancer treatments, have spent months shut away. Now, with remarkably little scrutiny, they are being urged out of shielding.
From 6 July, they will no longer be expected to distance themselves from those they live with. Adults who do not live with other adults will be able to form a support bubble with another household. They will be able to meet up to six other people if they maintain social distancing. From 1 August, they can go to work if they cannot work from home and their workplace is coronavirus-secure. Most of the 90,000 children will be able to go back to school.
Many will be desperate to get out after so long behind closed doors. Isolation affects both physical and mental wellbeing. Charities agree that in a lot of cases the benefits will outweigh the risks of infection.
Yet many are extremely anxious. While the government estimates that one in 1,700 people are now infected, compared with one in 500 people four weeks ago, the UK reported 186 deaths on Friday. Economics, rather than science, are driving decision-making. Other countries have taken a much more cautious approach.
Those whose needs have been overlooked during lockdown can have little confidence that they will be addressed in relaxation. Some vulnerable people never made it on to the government’s shielding list. When universal credit was rightly increased there was no corresponding boost for disabled people on benefits such as the employment and support allowance.
Moreover, people with entirely rational concerns about ending their isolation may nonetheless be forced to do so. Though some employers are making minimal efforts to adapt workplaces, and even the “Covid-secure” label is an aspiration rather than a guarantee, the extremely vulnerable will no longer be eligible for statutory sick pay while shielding. Free essential food box deliveries will stop; the government says people can go to the shops, or still get priority delivery slots or supplies through the NHS volunteers scheme.
Under these circumstances, as the chief executive of the MS Society has noted, the idea of returning to normal life feels more like a threat than an opportunity for some. Disability Rights UK put it more strongly: “People are being forced to choose between their life and their livelihood.”
The pandemic has both highlighted and exacerbated the marginalisation of people with chronic illnesses or disabilities, and the outright discrimination which persists. People need to understand the degree of risk they face from coronavirus – but the stress on the underlying conditions of those who have died has at times carried an undeniable whiff of the idea that they were essentially doomed anyway, or even that their lives were worth less. Shockingly, GPs have issued do not resuscitate notices to people on the basis of their autism or learning disabilities, and to elderly people en masse.
Shielders have been poorly served during lockdown, and must not be neglected now. Continuing financial and material support should be coupled with creative solutions: in Dublin, “cocooners” have been given a designated time to exercise in parks, with others asked to stay away. A civilised society should put those most at risk from coronavirus at the top of the agenda – not relegate them to an afterthought.