The government’s shielding policy, which kept millions of those most vulnerable to Covid confined to their homes, should have wrapped up with a bang. A joyous declaration. You’re OK. No need to worry anymore. We don’t even need to hold it in reserve because we’ve got this beat.
But funnily enough, there was none of that. Instead, the announcement of its end was sneaked out alongside a government reshuffle. So the nation wasn’t paying attention to much of anything beyond sighing with relief that education would no longer be in the hands of Gavin Williamson, a man who might struggle to find employment as a dog walker if he fails to retain his seat at the next election.
“People previously considered to be clinically extremely vulnerable will not be advised to shield again,” the Department of Health and Social Care declared. Or should that be, the Department of Health and Social Care whispered.
“This decision is based on there being far more information available on the virus and what makes individuals more or less vulnerable, the success of the Covid-19 vaccination programme and the emergence of proven treatments, such as dexamethasone and tocilizumab, to support improved outcomes in clinical care pathways.”
Well, phew! Perhaps we don’t need to worry after all. But if that really were the case, why sneak the release out on what was a very good day to bury bad or controversial news? The latter this certainly was. As to the former, well that depends on how many people die.
If disabled people, those with long term health conditions, the immunosuppressed et al are now as safe as houses and don’t need to hide away in them anymore (so long as they’re vaccinated), there should have been no need for such cynicism.
But this could be another instance of the government playing poker with people’s lives.
Surely it wasn’t a case of ministers simply saying “screw ‘em if it all goes horribly wrong, who cares about the disabled anyway, Rishi’ll be happy if we off a few more of them because it’ll cut the welfare bill”. Surely, it wasn’t that?
The virus is still spreading. There are more than 8,000 people in hospital, and that number is rising. The scientists are worried, and with winter, the peak season for respiratory illness, looming large, they’re right to be.
It is true that the available vaccines are very effective at preventing hospitalisation and death. And at some point, those of us who spent time in the shielding group will, I imagine, be trotting down to our local vaccination centre for a third shot.
But the virus can still find a way around the vaccines, and it has proved to be pretty good at modifying with a view to mucking up the best-laid plans of mice and man, let alone the slapdash, half-arsed policymaking favoured by the current administration.
I have spoken to the charities Scope, Leonard Cheshire Disability and Disability Rights UK about this. They are all unhappy. No wonder. The people they represent feel nervous and wonder how they will manage without the legal protections that came with shielding. They feel abandoned through the course of the pandemic, and with good reason. The behaviour of the government could be described as callous at best.
And amid all the talk about a winter plan B, circuit breakers, the potential of lockdown lite if things start to get worse during the winter months, it seems incomprehensible that the government would formally jettison its plans to protect the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.
Its media managers recognised this, which is why they sought to brush it under the carpet.
The homes of shielders may be open but fear stalks them all the same.