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The last time Sophia Marcou left her home was on 19 March – and that was for a socially distanced funeral. Like thousands of people across the UK, the 31-year-old, from Surrey, is shielding during the coronavirus pandemic.
Marcou lives with her parents and her 89-year-old grandmother, Christina, who she is a full-time carer for. Her father, Pedro, has a weakened immune system and has had sepsis three times, so the entire family is staying indoors. They have a garden which offers some respite, but Marcou says it’s getting tough.
“There’s only so much TV you can watch, books you can read, and cupboards you can clean,” she tells HuffPost UK. “We’re doing our best to entertain each other, playing cards and doing puzzles. But when no one is going out, conversation dries up fast.”
Every aspect of Marcou’s life has been impacted by the virus. “When the shopping arrives it’s a huge ordeal, wiping everything down, disinfecting everything within an inch of its life,” she says. “Letters are staying on the floor for four days minimum.”
When Boris Johnson addressed the nation on Sunday 10 May outlining relaxed lockdown restrictions, he didn’t mention those who are shielding.
The government first announced shielding measures on 16 March, telling those in vulnerable groups they’d need to stay at home for 12 weeks. That brings us to 8 June if you count from the announcement, or 15 June if you count from the start of lockdown. However, the government’s website has since been updated, advising people to now shield until the end of June instead. A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson also confirmed to HuffPost UK that the advice still stands: people who are shielding should stay at home to stay safe.
“It would be nice for the government to acknowledge us,” says Marcou, discussing Johnson’s Sunday evening address. “It’s not just a case of old or sick people staying home and getting on with life, it is so much more than that.
“For us, this is very worrying. Will we ever be able to leave the house again?”
Emily Leary, 37, is shielding in Nottingham with her husband Mark, 42, and their two children, who are eight and 12 years old. The couple’s eight-year-old has an unnamed respiratory condition that developed when she was a toddler.
“If she gets any sort of cough or cold it usually brings on serious difficulty breathing,” explains Leary. “It’s seen us in A&E dozens of times over the years, where she’s typically given oxygen and steroids. No one knows how she would react to coronavirus but needless to say, we’re taking no risks. Her consultant called once lockdown began to confirm we should be shielding.”
The family haven’t left home since lockdown began on 23 March and decided to take their daughter out of school a week prior to that. Like Marcou, Leary was disappointed families like hers weren’t mentioned in the PM’s recent address. “It felt like we weren’t on the roadmap and that made me a bit sad,” she says.
“I’m worried how far the relaxed rules are being stretched and how, ultimately, that could mean more deaths and more families like ours shielding for longer.”
Shielding with two children is full of highs and lows, says Leary. They’ve enjoyed spending more time together than usual, cooking, doing art and gardening – “memories we’ll treasure” – but, she admits, it’s become harder as time has gone on.
“The kids want personal space and so do we,” she says. “Sometimes we’re irritable towards each other and need to take a step back and acknowledge we’re all just a bit stir crazy.
“We’re experiencing a sort of lethargy, despite not moving as much. We exercise every day, but it’s nothing compared to the school runs and weekend adventures we used to have.”
“We’ll shield for as long as it takes.”
Leary’s children don’t fall into the year groups invited to return to school on 1 June and due to her daughter’s health, she doesn’t think they’ll be able to return this academic year anyway.
“They miss their friends, they miss freedom, they miss their old routines,” she says. “We want to fix it for them and get their lives back to normal, but we also want to keep them safe, so we’ll shield for as long as it takes.”
While Leary and her family are craving space, Rachael Paget, 35, from Warrington, is missing human interaction as she’s shielding alone. She has severe asthma, which requires multiple daily medications and has caused her to need intensive care treatment in the past.
“It’s definitely getting tougher and some days are better than others,” she says. “The loneliness is difficult but technology does help with that, although it doesn’t replace human contact with those you love.”
Like Leary and Marcou, Paget has relied on her family and the kindness of people in her local community to access shopping and her medication. The main difficulty at the moment, she says, is seeing people talking about life getting “back to normal” – and knowing that for her, that’s not the case.
All three women we spoke to say there are practical challenges with shielding for such an extended period. Leary, who is a food writer and presenter, has been trying to work from home while homeschooling her children – but says balancing the two is “pretty much impossible”.
Meanwhile Paget, who is a secondary school English teacher, had to deal with a broken boiler. Thankfully, her cousin’s husband – who she knew had been sticking to social distancing measures – is a heating engineer and was able to fix it while she stayed upstairs. But she’s now worried something else will go wrong in the house that her family can’t fix.
“We've had no support from any outside body.”
Marcou’s mum, who was previously the main breadwinner in the family, was made redundant shortly before the pandemic hit the UK. Finances have been tight as a result. “We have no money coming in, so we are relying on savings; thank God for being thrifty,” says Marcou.
She adds that her family have had “no support” from any outside body. “I’ve heard of some councils calling vulnerable residents to check on them, we’ve not seen or heard from anyone,” she says.
Paget is preparing for the shielding date to be extended further, especially if there’s a second wave of infection – like other countries have had. “I think the 12 weeks was pretty arbitrary in the first place,” she says, “just a long stretch to manage expectations that we were not going to be getting out any time soon.
“But as that date nears, it’s reasonable to assume that until it’s safe for everyone, we’ll be staying indoors. It’s hard to see a way out of all this.”