The government is failing to recognise the importance of shielding. More lives will be ruined from their decisions than those who have contracted the virus, this cannot go on, argues Emily Barley.

It was a frankly genius idea, unique in the world of different national coronavirus responses. 2.2 million people were identified by the NHS as being at a 'very high risk' of covid-19, contacted individually, and supported to stay at home from the end of March to the beginning of August. Support included free food parcels, priority for supermarket home deliveries, welfare phone call checks from local authorities, and an army of volunteers picking up prescriptions and shopping to leave on their doorsteps.

The objective was clear: to stop the most vulnerable people in our communities from getting covid-19, becoming seriously ill, and dying.

I was one of the 2.2 million people who got a letter recommending I shield. I look reasonably young and healthy on the outside, but that health is maintained by a cocktail of immune system suppressing medications that put me at a higher risk not just of covid-19, but every kind of bacteria and virus you can think of.

Shielding was effective for me and people like me. We were protected, and we did not catch covid-19. Undoubtedly the scheme meant fewer people died than otherwise would have done.

Shielding was tough – it was isolating and difficult, especially for someone like me who lives alone – but ultimately it was palatable because it felt proportionate based on what we knew about covid-19 and my personal risk profile.

Not so for my friends who do not just appear young and healthy, but actually are young and healthy. The sacrifices they're being asked to make were, and continue to be, disproportionate to their risk. The cost to them personally, and to the society and economy we all depend on, has not been justified by the meagre benefits.

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We know more now than we did in March. We have a much better understanding of how many people have covid-19 and how fast it is spreading. We know much more about how to treat people who need to go into hospital, and as a result are reducing the number of deaths versus the start of the pandemic. We know much more about who is at risk of serious illness if they contract covid-19. And we also understand the mistakes that were made at the start of this crisis – especially with regards to vulnerable elderly people living in care homes, who in many places were not adequately protected.

In March there was so much we didn't know – about how deadly the virus would be, who would be at risk, and how it would spread. The overall suppression strategy was a blunt axe to attack an indistinct enemy.

But that's not the case anymore. We know that many people experience covid-19 without even realising it – the symptoms are that mild. The vast majority of people recover quickly. And we have masses of data that when analysed will give a much clearer picture of precisely who has an increased risk of serious illness or death if they get covid-19.

At the same time, we also understand the risks associated with the current suppression strategy. We can see the non-covid health implications, the excess deaths from other causes, the rise in mental health problems, and the unfolding economic catastrophe. We also know that a successful vaccine may take years to develop or never be made, and we simply can't sustain this. It isn't possible, and if we keep on trying more people are going to die from poverty and non-covid illnesses than will ever be affected by coronavirus.

Thousands of people who have nothing to fear from covid-19 are having their lives and futures wrecked, and it needs to stop. It's time to bring back shielding, and lift all other restrictions.

Smarter, more precise, shielding that uses everything we've learned to make sure only the people who really do have a very high risk are asked to stay at home – and that may mean some people who previously shielded don't need to again, and others who didn't shield before are advised to this time. It means better shielding that includes people living in care homes and other high-risk institutions. It means government and local authority support is targeted at the people who need it most.

And for everyone else, it's not quite life as normal. It's information and advice about their individual risk and how they can mitigate it. It's saying to students who want to go out partying not to then visit their granny. It's social distancing, hand washing, and looking out for each other.

Most of all, it's stopping this madness and shifting to a rational, targeted response based on everything we now know. Sure, it'll be hard for me and the other people who are advised to shield – but it's the only way forward that makes sense when the consequences of carrying on this way are so devastating.

14 votes

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