'Shielding' people voice fears over lockdown easing in England

Helen Pidd

For the last 10 weeks, Graham Bell has been sleeping in a hotel near the Devon hospital where he works as an intensive care nurse, away from his wife and toddler triplets. His wife, Hannah Gallagher-Bell, another nurse, is shielding because of diabetes and other underlying health conditions. The triplets – William, Benjamin and Florence, who are two and a half – were born prematurely and are vulnerable to lung infections. This prompted the couple to take the agonising decision for Graham to stay out of the house in case he picked up Covid-19 on the ward and infected the rest of the family.

Hannah, who has not been able to work during the crisis because of her health vulnerabilities, has not left their house in Barnstaple since Graham packed his bags and went to a hotel on 22 March, the day before Boris Johnson put the UK into lockdown. She will not be going anywhere soon, she said: “The thought of it absolutely petrifies me.”

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Nearby beaches have been full since Johnson loosened lockdown restrictions on 11 May, telling people they could drive as far as they want for exercise. This was an instruction many people took as an invitation to head to the seaside for picnics and barbecues. “Where we live in Devon we have had an influx of people in the last couple of weeks with this glorious weather – even just looking out of the window I can see the traffic,” said Hannah.

Until now, the infection rate for North Devon has been low, with 93 cases so far. “But I worry that we will see an increase in the next week or two as a result of all the visitors,” said Hannah. Her mother lives next door and has been helping out with the triplets but it has not been easy. “But we took the decision for Graham to keep working for the greater good, for the bigger picture.”

Helen Gates is a 39-year-old microbiologist who is on immunosuppressants for ulcerative colitis, an inflammation of the digestive system. She is also not going to be rushing out on Monday, especially as she lives in Morecambe, a seaside resort in Lancashire that has been flooded with visitors during the hot weather. “It’s scary,” she says. “For the last 10 weeks we have been told how vulnerable we are and how dangerous it would be for us to come into contact with someone who had the disease. I don’t understand what’s changed really. Am I no longer as vulnerable? Or is it just that there is now enough capacity in the NHS if people like me do get ill?”

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She has been isolating with her two daughters – Emily, 8, and Elizabeth, 10 – and husband Jono. He has been taking the girls out for walks but avoiding contact with others and they have not been able to play with their friends in the street since lockdown. They’ve coped remarkably well, she said. Last autumn she was admitted to hospital so they know first-hand that their mum needs to be kept safe.

The government could have come up with ways to make shielders feel safer leaving the house, said Gates. “I read about how in Spain they had designated times when vulnerable people could go outside, knowing that only other shielding people would be out then. I like that idea – even if it’s just an hour a week. The other thing I wondered about was whether I could start socialising with other people who have been shielding for 10 weeks. They won’t have Covid either, and it would mean I can see my sister-in-law and my father-in-law.”

She is reluctant to stop shielding without a personalised risk assessment from her doctors. “It’s hard to know how high my risk levels are on the general information from the government,” she said.

Esther Quaintmere, 32, a mechanical engineer from Cottingham in East Yorkshire, is also shielding because of a low white blood cell count, which leaves her susceptible to bacterial infections. She went outside for the first time 10 days ago after managing to speak to her consultant, who said she was statistically at low risk.

“The consultant said that because I’m a fit, healthy young woman and my bone marrow does make some white blood cells that I would be OK to go out for walks,” she said. Without that information from someone she trusted, Quaintmere would still be holed up in a small terraced house with her mum, Jacqui Bruce, and boyfriend, Pip Hammond.

Leaving the house after 60 days in isolation was a big deal for all of them, said Bruce: “Your home becomes your security blanket.” Without the consultant’s reassurance, they wouldn’t have crossed the threshold simply on the government’s say-so, she added. “I personally think the politicians are not listening enough to what the scientists are saying.”