Today, it seems, we may be one step closer to beating Covid. But as the UK and the rest of the world start to celebrate the possibility of the first effective vaccine, I can’t help but feel conflicted.
I’m of working age and classed as extremely vulnerable, due to a lifesaving double lung transplant in 2017. And just a little digging into the vaccine announcement has put a serious dent in any feelings of excitement.
While the government has warned the process to roll out this, and potential other, vaccines nationally is unlikely to be quick after a year full of challenges, it is difficult to stop people running away with the idea that the end is in sight.
I fear that after almost nine months effectively shielding, we will be expected to continue to stay at home.
Many would perhaps assume, despite these attempts to quell enthusiasm, two things from the latest news. Firstly, that it may not be too long until the whole country is vaccinated and we are headed back to normality, and, secondly, that once available, the entirety of the highly vulnerable group would be at the top of the list, able to receive the vaccine as early as potentially December. That however, is, frustratingly, far from the truth.
Since the outbreak of Covid, the highly vulnerable have been spoken about often. But too often, the rhetoric around this group incorrectly painted a picture of solely the elderly. We were told that breaking the rules could endanger the lives of our grandparents. But what the public messaging neglected to highlight was that many thousands of others are classed as extremely vulnerable, for any number of health reasons, who aren’t elderly and in fact might not, to the general public, look vulnerable at all.
Why have we, the extremely vulnerable, been bumped down the list?
Looking at the government’s tier system created for the roll out of the vaccine, those under 65 and classed as highly vulnerable are placed sixth in terms of priority. Within groups one to five are, understandably, those who work in healthcare settings and care home residents and workers, where the virus appears to have thrived with huge impact, but there are also millions of others too.
The entire population over the age of 65, a group of over 12 million, have been given higher priority access than the extremely vulnerable. Those aged 65 to 70, around 3.4 million according to national statistics, without health conditions haven’t even been asked to shield up until this point.
This decision has left thousands of vulnerable working age people feeling yet again undervalued, ignored and unrecognised. Yet, when the time comes, plans currently suggest that many of these healthy over 65s will be entitled to a vaccine before people under that age with conditions including cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, chronic lung conditions or people like me, who have received organ transplants.
Government instructions to shield may be protecting the NHS and lives but for a significant group it is slowly destroying them – and it cannot continue.
Another factor to highlight is that many of those over the age of 65 will have retired, while a vaccine for the working age vulnerable would allow many to return to jobs and have a life closer to normality. I wouldn’t want to suggest that normality for them isn’t also valuable, but for the working age vulnerable it would reduce not only the personal strain of shielding, but the strain on the economy and society; an added bonus for the government it would seem.
So why have we, the extremely vulnerable, been bumped down the list? The plans are based on the data around Covid mortality and we have, in some ways it seems, been too good at shielding. We are a group more used than most to reducing our exposure to potential illness. We have stayed inside and limited the potential strain on the NHS, often at the expense of our own jobs and lives – and now we are essentially being punished for our compliance.
I am sure in the next few days and weeks, as the plans for potential roll outs are cemented, these categories will vary somewhat.
But despite this, the reality is there is a limited number of vaccines and many more people who need one.
I fear that other more vocal, or visible, groups may trump the working age vulnerable and that after almost nine months effectively shielding, we will be expected to continue to stay at home.
I understand that a vaccine would be a positive for all and most could argue why they should be top of the list, but it is frustrating to feel that, yet again, the government has forgotten us.
Our position as extremely vulnerable does not, or should not, define us. It should not mean we are viewed as less valuable, or not viewed at all.
We, as a group, deserve to be considered a priority, and while it may seem selfish what I am saying it, it’s true. There needs to be some acknowledgement that government instructions to shield may be protecting the NHS and lives but for a significant group it is slowly destroying them – and it cannot continue.
Pippa Kent is a freelance writer and double lung transplant recipient.