Today is the third anniversary of the UK Government’s first Covid-19 lockdown which began on 23 March 2020. For many people, those restrictions are all but a distant memory. Most of the UK population is ‘back to normal’ – masks binned, social distancing long-forgotten and just the odd cough, cold or flu to contend with – ‘Covid carefree’ you might call it.
But for many people in the UK today, Covid-19 is not a far-off reminiscence, nor is it just a cough, cold or flu. For almost 3.7 million people in England alone (and their families and households), it is much more serious than that. The ever-present threat of a deadly airborne respiratory virus affects every aspect of their lives and they must continue to monitor the risk to themselves and their loved ones every day.
My partner has Stage IV cancer. Almost two years on from his diagnosis, he needs to be careful, very careful. Countless chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments and two major surgical operations mean that his immune system has most likely not mounted an adequate response to the many vaccine doses he has received. He is clinically vulnerable. Living with him means I need to take the same precautions that he does, in case I put him at risk of severe disease and hospitalisation or worse.
Who is at increased risk?
Of course, it’s not just cancer patients like him who are still at high risk from Covid-19. According to NHS England, a whole raft of other medical conditions significantly increase people’s risk of infection. Elderly people, pregnant women and those who have been unable to receive the Covid-19 vaccines due to their medical conditions are also at increased risk.
Vast numbers of people suffering from long Covid are also affected. Everyone is vulnerable to long Covid, which can result in serious health consequences, including organ and immune system damage, and those risks increase with each Covid-19 reinfection.
We are all potentially just one infection or diagnosis away from becoming more susceptible, as my partner sadly learned in June 2021.
Strength in joining together
If you or anyone you live with is clinically vulnerable, you have probably, like me, been continuing with some Covid-19 protection measures – ordering groceries online instead of supermarket shopping, masking in indoor settings and outdoors when in large crowds, socialising less, and working from home. Perhaps you’ve been thinking that you’re one of the few households still undertaking these mitigations.
Please be reassured that you’re not alone.
There are many of us out there in the same boat, and there are numerous organisations working tirelessly to try to provide support, advice and a voice for people in our situation. If you’re vulnerable, or you live with someone who is, do seek out support from groups such as Zero Covid Scotland and Clinically Vulnerable Families. There is strength in joining together with others in similar situations. Further details can be found at the end of this article.
Zero Covid Scotland recent event: prevention is possible
One of these organisations, the Zero Covid Scotland campaign group, recently held a very informative online event, highlighting numerous ways in which people who need to stay safe can do so. Arguably, this is something which should be done by government, but the lack of information and guidance out there for vulnerable people means that volunteer organisations and charities are stepping in to fill that void.
You can view the meeting via the group’s website – click here for more information.
In the meeting, Lara Wong, founder of the Clinically Vulnerable Families (CVF) Facebook campaign and advocacy group, shared a wealth of invaluable advice on high-quality FFP2 and FFP3 masks, ventilation, clean air filtration devices, carbon dioxide monitors and useful nasal sprays and mouthwashes. The CVF Facebook group began early on in the pandemic, initially as a response to parental concerns about safe access to schools, and has since grown into a popular online community, open to anyone living in a clinically vulnerable household. The group provides support and advice on Covid-19-related issues, as well as representing the views and concerns of its members with MPs, the UK Government and now, as designated core participants in the official UK Covid-19 Inquiry.
Professor Stephen Reicher, professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews and member of Independent Sage, followed this with an overview of where things currently stand for vulnerable people and what he feels needs to change to protect them. He said, “the (UK) Government has relentlessly been telling us that it’s all over”. People have believed that false messaging. Reicher stated that, on the contrary, “Covid is still having a huge effect” and “for vulnerable people, it is far more serious”, not just a mild illness or inconvenience. The World Health Organisation (WHO) also agrees that the pandemic hasn’t ended.
Clean air: “a fundamental issue of public health”
Clean air can also enhance productivity, both the amount and quality of output. Carbon dioxide levels in the air act as a proxy for the risk of Covid-19, with under 700 parts per million considered the ideal standard. Reicher says that research shows that when carbon dioxide levels rise to very high levels (1,500 parts per million or more), simple decision-making declines by about 25% and the quality of complex cognitive tasks declines by 50%.
Poor ventilation and a lack of clean air also increase staff illness and absence. With all of that in mind, one would assume that employers would jump at the chance to improve productivity by improving air quality in their workplaces. If new filtration systems are good enough for MPs and peers in the UK parliament and staff in Ministry of Defence buildings, is there not an argument for every workplace (and school) to be fitted out with these?
UK Government inaction means lockdown continues
The UK Government’s current ‘it’s all down to personal responsibility’ stance skilfully absolves them, and employers, of their responsibilities to protect people from harm. Public Health departments appear to have followed the official UK Government line and are consistently failing, up and down the country, to keep vulnerable people safe. The UK has, time and again, lagged far behind the rest of Europe on mitigations and measures which would have helped to protect vulnerable people, such as authorising the use of the nasal spray Enovid or the preventative antibody treatment Evusheld, both proven, in other countries, to be highly effective.
Now with hospitals dropping requirements for masking and testing, and data on Covid-19 no longer collected in as much detail as before by the Office for National Statistics, those of us still trying to protect ourselves and our loved ones are finding it more and more difficult to stay safe and now feel even more excluded from ‘normal’ life. As one of the Zero Covid Scotland meeting’s attendees so aptly put it – “It’s not my clinical status that makes me vulnerable, it’s governmental inaction and behaviours. There’s nothing inevitable about my exclusion or that of people like me.”
So, if you barely give Covid-19 a second thought these days, spare a thought for those of us who must. Each infection, each hospitalisation, every death – they’re not just numbers to many of us. The scientific data and the research and advice of knowledgeable experts such as those on Independent Sage mean that we must continue to be vigilant and extremely careful. Covid-19 is still very much an issue for vulnerable people.
We all faced strict limitations together as a country during the official lockdowns between March 2020 and March 2021. It was a grim but shared, collective experience, undertaken to protect the most vulnerable people in our communities. Today, whilst most of the population is free to return to ‘normal’ life, millions of people, and their unpaid carers and families – a huge swathe of the UK population – are still effectively in lockdown. They are being deprived of their fundamental rights to equal citizenship. They deserve safe access to buildings, shops, workplaces, hospitals, GPs’ surgeries, dentists, education and social activities.
You can help
Mask if you’re in crowded spaces or somewhere where elderly and vulnerable people have no choice but to go to (supermarkets, shops, healthcare settings), keep your distance from others where possible, and stay at home if you’re ill. (Of course, be aware that many vulnerabilities cannot be seen, they are often hidden. No one who looks at my partner can tell he is living with advanced cancer.)
Be aware that colleagues at work may live with someone who is elderly or vulnerable. Open the windows, make sure there’s ventilation, mask in crowded settings, ask your employer to sign up to the Covid-19 safety pledge and join in with their week of action this week, 20 – 26 March. Follow @CovidPledge for daily tweets and further information.
Everyone can do their bit to help, by becoming more aware and showing more care.
Three years on, the Covid carefree need to be mindful not to be Covid careless….
National Day of Reflection
With so many Covid-related deaths over these last three years, and the suffering and grief which has resulted from these, today has been designated a National Day of Reflection by Marie Curie, the charity which provides care and support to those with terminal illnesses.
The charity is encouraging people to come together and describe it as “an opportunity to remember our loved ones who’ve died, support people who are grieving, and connect with each other”.
A minute’s silence will be observed at midday and a series of grief-themed online programmes, free events and workshops will be available. Celebrities Sheila Hancock and Anneka Rice are contributing to the events, as well as renowned author and end-of-life/grief expert Dr Kathryn Mannix.
The charity is also encouraging schools, workplaces and communities to create their own walls of reflection and they provide a toolkit and guidance on how to do this on their website.
To register for any of the National Day of Reflection events, or to find out more and access support, visit the official National Day of Reflection website here.
Further information and support regarding the issues mentioned in this article can be found at;