While people in the UK are being told to stay at home to slow the spread of coronavirus, a significant minority must go even further, avoiding any close contact – even with loved ones – for 12 weeks. They are the so-called shielded.
Texts and letters arrived this week telling more than a million people in the UK to endure an extreme form of isolation for at least 12 weeks to “shield” them from the worst of the coronavirus outbreak. These “extremely vulnerable groups” include organ transplant recipients, some cancer patients, people with severe lung conditions, people with weakened immune systems and pregnant women with heart conditions.
Told to stay at home at all times and aim to remain two metres (6ft) away from anyone they live with, how are they managing?
‘Everything is a risk’
“I would die if I got it, I’ve got no immune system,” says Angela Steatham.
Four years ago, she was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, which affects the white blood cells that fight infection. The 56-year-old didn’t let it stop her work as a psychologist and leadership coach, travelling around the world to work with major companies. But coronavirus changed all that, leaving her just a couple of rooms in her cottage in the village of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, Powys, where she can feel safe.
“Now literally the whole word is dangerous to me. And I can’t control that. That’s what has been psychologically really scary. I know that apart from me staying in one or two rooms of my home everything is a risk,” she says.
Her 23-year-old son, Charlie, has moved out to allow her to follow the stringent restrictions. Whenever her partner, Simon Corden, has contact with the outside world, he has chosen to then quarantine himself as a precaution within the house – but away from her – for two weeks before they can spend time in the same room.
They communicate on walkie-talkies due to the weaker mobile phone signal and patchy wi-fi service in their rural location, letting each other know when they need to use the kitchen or bathroom and checking they have cleaned it afterwards.
An extrovert with a busy online life and a shield emoji posted on her Twitter profile, Angela says she’s had lots of supportive messages. And she stays connected with older relatives on the phone, but is unable to see their faces as they do not have videophone facilities.
“My auntie and uncle, we were crying on the phone at the weekend, because we realised that, actually, we might never see each other again,” she says. “If something happens to her or my uncle or me over this next three months, that’s it.”
‘I never want my family to see me on a ventilator again’
Severe asthma came on suddenly for Rachael Paget one morning in 2017. By the afternoon she was on a ventilator in a medically induced coma, where she spent the next nine days. The memory of how it affected her family is in her thoughts as the 35-year-old teacher stays shielded from the virus outbreak alone in her terraced house in Warrington.
“They’ve seen me on a ventilator once before, and it was horrific for them. It was scary for me once I woke up and people told me what had happened, but for most of it I wasn’t conscious. They had to see it and I would never want them to have to go through that again,” she says.
She’s continuing to work from home, giving lessons online to the teenagers in her classes (“they’re really compassionate”), and keeping in touch with fellow teachers on social media. A big network of family members is helping to bring her supplies, but some, like her dad, have to be persuaded not to try to stay for a chat.
But she says the rules on some of the practicalities of life while being shielded can be confusing and hard to manage. “I live alone so ridiculous things like putting the bin out – I have to do that. But am I allowed to? Am I putting myself at risk?”
‘How can I show my son affection from 6ft away?’
With a four-year-old son, shielding alone wasn’t an option for Michael Winehouse, a charity fundraiser who has cystic fibrosis.
So young Oscar and Michael’s wife Amy are joining him in isolation at their home in Epping, east London – none of them leaving the house at all, including for their usual walks together in the forest.
“We have to do it this way. Our house isn’t big enough and a four-year-old needs attention from mum and dad, especially when we’ve both got to work,” says the 33-year-old. “I can’t be that far away from him all the time. How can I educate him, how can I show him affection from that distance? He wouldn’t understand why daddy won’t come near him.”
Michael says his genetic condition – which means thick mucus clogs up the lungs and creates a risk of dangerous infections – has prepared him for the prospect of isolation at home or in hospital when he’s unwell. But asking his family to do the same was “the toughest part”.
Life in a coronavirus outbreak resembles having cystic fibrosis in some ways, he says, with the fear of infections from people with colds and coughs, cancelled plans and protective masks.
“This does give the rest of society a bit of insight into the daily lives of people with CF. There is a lot of fear,” Michael says.
‘I’m marking off the calendar’
The text message warning her to stay inside for 12 weeks was unexpected for Hilary Leigh. The 75-year-old hadn’t anticipated that her cancer treatment more than a year ago would have put her in the extremely vulnerable group.
She says some of the guidelines are “almost impossible” to keep in practice, staying two metres apart from her husband, Richard, at their home in Harrow, London, and never letting her guard down. That morning her husband had answered the phone and handed it to her – technically it should have been sanitised in between, she says.
Food shopping has been a challenge, with the first online delivery slot she was able to book being 15 April. Family members are helping, but some others have had to isolate themselves because someone in their home has symptoms.
She is keeping in touch with loved ones through FaceTime and swapping photos of the flowers growing in their gardens with a friend.
“When it came through and it said 12 weeks I actually marked them off on the calendar. I’m going to tear off each week as it goes,” Hilary says. “Things do pass. Perhaps because we’re older we know this.”