People living in areas affected by the South African variant of coronavirus are bewildered by government messaging about what they can and can’t do.
Ministers have told residents in the hotspots to “think twice” before leaving the house and said to pay “particular” attention to the lockdown – but have imposed no actual new restrictions.
“Can I still go to the park for a walk?”, “Can I go food shopping?” and: “Should I be going out to get my coronavirus vaccine?” are some of the questions asked by those in the variant-hit areas.
They are also puzzled that door-to-door testing and the “think twice” advice are isolated to specific postcode areas when bordering postcodes are in some cases just yards away.
Former HuffPost UK intern Anisah Vasta, 21, lives in the Birchills area of Walsall in the West Midlands.
“My whole family had Covid during January and it was a really tough time.” she said. “There are seven of us living in the home including my 84-year-old grandfather, and the toll it took on us was horrifying.
“I was the first to get it and then the rest of my family started dropping like flies within days.
“It has hit the older members of the family harder and they are still recovering as the effects are long lasting.”
When Anisah heard the South African variant had been found in the WS2 area where she lives, she prepared for herself and her family to be tested.
But she says she cannot fathom messages from government officials telling people in affected areas to take extra measures when the country is already in lockdown.
“How much more of a lockdown can you get?” asked Anisah. “My whole family has been listening to the messages and staying at home and following the rules – so what is going wrong?
“To say things like ‘don’t go out shopping’ is easy for politicians to say. They don’t realise how hard it is for people such as big families and how problematic it is getting online slots.”
She added: “Walsall is only a relatively small place and people from different postcodes use many of the same areas.
“There is a park called Arboretum Park, which is in WS1, which is a communal park and is only a 15- or 20-minute walk away.
“Should people living in WS2 not go to this park any more? And should people in WS1 not be alerted as a place for extra precautions when it is so close to a postcode where the new variant has been found?”
Health secretary Matt Hancock has said people in affected postcodes should only go out when “absolutely essential”.
He told a Downing Street press conference on Monday: “There is already a national lockdown in place that says that you should not travel unless it’s absolutely necessary and that you should stay local and we expect people to adhere to that everywhere – but in particular in the postcodes that I’ve set out, where people should stay at home unless they absolutely have to leave, and anybody even thinking about stretching the rules in those areas must not.”
On-the-spot doorstep tests, home testing kits and mobile testing units will be deployed to affected areas with the aim of reaching 80,000 people.
But people like Rosemary Parker, who lives in the affected PR9 area in Southport, have already been rigidly staying at home.
Parker, 58, is a pancreatic cancer survivor and has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It means she has been shielding since the pandemic began, and has only left the house twice as she is extremely clinically vulnerable.
What’s more, she lives with her 30-year-old son, who is a carer for vulnerable adults – meaning she has been largely confined to her bedroom.
“When I heard about this new South African variant affecting Southport, I just thought: ‘I am never going to be able to get out of this bedroom,’” she said.
Rosemary is having her first coronavirus vaccine tomorrow, but says she is confused about whether she should be leaving the house at all.
“I have elderly parents who are 90 and 87 and I can’t see them as I want to keep them safe,” she said. “It is really difficult not being able to see them and help them and I just want to hug them.
“I just can’t see light at the end of the tunnel. I do have days when I am so fed up, I just cry.”
Rosemary says the government has been “useless” in its handling of the pandemic, and lambasted ministers for not shutting down the borders.
“It makes a mockery of telling people to stay at home even more than they are because of this new variant, when they haven’t closed the borders.
“Until they lock down hard everywhere and put a stop to this virus, it is just going to keep on mutating.”
Universities minister Michelle Donelan has told people in areas with the South African variant to “think twice” about their actions when leaving the home.
She said it was time for them to have “extra conversations with their employers” about working from home and to consider if they “really need to go to the shops or could they have what they’ve got in their house” and to ask themselves: “Do they need to go outside to exercise or could they do that indoors?”
Emma Howard from the Covid-19 Southport Support Group, told HuffPost UK mixed messages from the government are confusing people.
“We are already in a national lockdown so we should all be adhering to the strict rules,” she said. “How many more additional measures are there to take and how much more strict can people be?
“People in these affected areas are being asked to stay indoors and be extremely cautious. But we were already doing that so why did this new variant happen and how did it get to Southport?
“We are not a city. We are a seaside town with mostly older people, and it is the middle of winter. So people can’t understand how this South African variant has reached us.”
She added: “We have one particular ward, Norwood, which is split into PR8 and PR9 postcodes. So you could be on one side of the road and be in one postcode and on the other side, be in the other.
“People in the affected PR9 postcode are also unsure if they are allowed to go out for their vaccine or urgent medical appointment and we are trying to reassure them.
“But it is difficult because the government has confused everybody.”
Ken Hinds, 60, lives in Tottenham’s affected N17 postcode. He told HuffPost UK he believes there hasn’t been a “lot of common sense” been shown by the government in its messaging.
“The virus doesn’t recognise postcodes,” he said. “So what’s the point of telling people in certain postcodes to take extra precautions? We know it is just going to spread, particularly to nearby areas.
“There is also no point telling people to stay at home even more than they already are. I have family members who have been locked up at home since March as they are too scared to go out.”
Haringey Council appeared to agree on Monday, when it told constituents: “There is no increased public health risk with the South African variant of the virus than the original one. You should continue to follow the national lockdown guidance as before. If you cannot work from home then you can still go to work.”
Ken, who is chair of the Haringey stop and search independent monitoring group, says rather than telling people in affected areas not to go outside for food or exercise, the government should be advocating extreme caution for everyone venturing outside by reminding them to wear a mask and social distance from others.
“People cannot live like hermits,” he said.
He told HuffPost UK he had his first dose of the coronavirus vaccine on Tuesday. “I know there is a lot of misinformation and conspiracy theories about vaccines circulating on social media,” he said, “and I would urge people not to be taken in by it.
“I am not going to dictate what people should do. It is down to them and they need to do what is comfortable for them.
“But I personally felt it was important to have the coronavirus vaccine as my mum is 96 and I want to do all I can to protect her and others and want to see an end to this pandemic.”