Earlier this month a minority group of academics released a document calling for a new approach to tackling coronavirus in the UK dubbed “Focused Protection”.
The so-called Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) gained wide traction and coverage helped not least by the attractive premise it held for many – most people could carry on with their lives as normal, gradually building herd immunity, while vulnerable groups shield from the virus.
What the document did not contain was a plan to achieve this other than to say “retired people living at home should have groceries and other essentials delivered to their home” and should try and meet relatives “outside rather than inside”.
Nor did it contain the opinions of any of those who would spend the winter months effectively locked away from society while the rest of the country returned to restaurants, bars, gyms and work.
Despite being dismissed by the both the government and the majority of the scientific community as “flawed” and a “dangerous fallacy unsupported by the scientific evidence”, calls for the herd immunity and Focused Protection approach have continued and have even made their way to the upper echelons of the White House.
NHS guidelines on who qualifies as vulnerable cover a wide range from those undergoing chemotherapy, to pregnant women to the very obese.
But the largest group by far that would find themselves subject to the guidelines contained within the GBD are the over 70s, of which there are nearly nine million across the country.
HuffPost UK spoke to a number of people about the prospect of a winter in Focused Protection and discovered the potential reason why the GBD contains no plan to carry it out – it’s just not possible.
The main issue is simply one of obtaining food. Even in the early days of lockdown when support groups were in full swing, grocery deliveries still had major drawbacks.
Michael, a 77-year-old former lab assistant living in Essex, tells HuffPost UK: “We did have a system with the local council where people were delivering but you couldn’t specify what you got.
“And because they weren’t getting it from Aldi I was having to pay at least a third more than what I pay normally and it’s just not viable to do for months at a time.”
Michael is therefore left with no choice but to venture to the shops himself and the chaos unleashed by the pandemic has affected him in some unexpected ways.
“I have to go to Aldi in Colchester to get my groceries,” he says. “There are shops nearer where I live but they’re much more expensive and I couldn’t afford to do that every week.
“The buses usually run every hour but they stopped at 5pm [because of the pandemic]. I had to walk all the way back, seven miles. I was left stranded in Colchester and the only way back was to walk.”
It’s not just shopping that is forcing over 70s to leave the house, prescriptions and hospital appointments that can’t be picked up or conducted over the phone often mean venturing miles, usually on public transport.
Joan, 83, has diabetes and is isolating in Liverpool. She tells HuffPost UK: “I’m having trouble with my eyes at the moment and I’m getting injections for that and have to travel quite a distance to get to the hospital.
“I have to either get someone to take me or use the bus again, it’s about 15 miles away. I don’t think it’s really safe, it’s very hard to decide what to do.”
There’s also an assumption that the chain of care stops with anyone over 70, but as 70-year-old former nurse Ann from near Rotherham points out, this just isn’t the case.
“I’ve not been going out because I have a 98-year-old mum who lives 30 miles away,” she says.
“My brother and his wife are looking after her at the moment but I’m trying to keep myself safe in case they become ill and I need to go and spend time with mum, that’s my main worry.”
Neil Brown, 72, from Warwickshire, also has commitments he cannot possibly drop that require he leaves the house on a regular basis. “I have a severely disabled daughter who lives 20 miles away and needs my constant support,” he says.
“She is also autistic and would not understand the shielding process and it would radically affect her health If i stopped my visits.”
Another aspect of the GBD, that the rest of the country could carry on as normal, is a terrifying prospect for the elderly who already run a public gauntlet of people disregarding current guidelines, particularly those on the wearing of face masks.
“I used to be a nurse so I do understand how bad this disease can be,” says Joan. “I’m doing everything I can, wearing masks when I go out.
“Young people just don’t care. I’ve only been to the supermarket four times since March and every time I’ve gone they’ve not been wearing masks, not bothering to keep their distance.
“If you go shopping it could be any of them next to you that have it. They just don’t care, I’m the one who has to step aside. I think I worry too much about catching it but I don’t want to die just yet.”
This sentiment is echoed by Michael: “There are so many people with fixed opinions that you can’t get through to like the ones who go about without a mask.
“It makes me so angry when you see pictures on Twitter of the people protesting. People are so stupid.
“Mind you if they weren’t stupid they wouldn’t have voted this government in and I knew Johnson would be a disaster.”
So what should the government do? “All I have to say to the government is get your finger out with the test, track and trace,” says Ann.
“Get that up and running and then everyone can, not get back to normal, but it’ll make people feel safer.”
There is of course a more fundamental with the problem of shielding vulnerable people over the age of 70 – not all over 70s see themselves as vulnerable.
“You’re not locking me up, I enjoy being outside too much,” 70-year-old author and broadcaster Christian Wolmar tells HuffPost UK.
“I’m a pretty fit 70-year-old who runs regularly and has no underlying health conditions snd I’m a very average weight. I don’t consider my Covid age is 70 and I don’t see myself as vulnerable.”
Speaking of the thought of facing a winter locked down, he adds: “I think it’s such a damaging concept, it would have enormous implications for my mental and physical health.
“I need to be out running most days and I work as well.”
The GBD has already been roundly criticised as being unrealistic and unworkable and the idea of asking all over-65s to shield to slow the transmission of the second wave of coronavirus was described by leader of the NHS in England, Sir Simon Stevens, as “age-based apartheid”.
And another expert said the declaration ignores the growing evidence on long Covid – whereby thousands of fit and young people who contract the virus have been left with debilitating symptoms months after a mild infection.
But perhaps the most galling aspect of the document is the assumption that the elderly should just accept they have to grin and bear the entire brunt of restrictions.
“I stayed in for three months,” says Joan. “My life has come to a stop. I’ve hardly had any contact with anyone.
“Apart from my son in New Zealand, you’re the only person that’s rung me and asked me if I need help or anything.”