By Sam Portillo | News Editor
From August 16, the Welsh government is no longer asking people with underlying health conditions to “shield” themselves from the rest of society, as the number of coronavirus cases remains relatively low. The new guidance will affect over 130,000 people across Wales, including those over the age of seventy, many cancer patients, and those who must take medicines that suppress their immune systems after recently receiving an organ transplant.
Initially, the Welsh government had identified around 88,000 individuals at high risk, but as the scientific understanding around the virus has developed, GPs and hospitals extended the advice to thousands more. In the week before shielding was suspended, an average 18 new cases of coronavirus were recorded across the country each day, compared to 340 at the peak of the epidemic.
Although the virus is still present in the population, then, its incidence is deemed low enough that people who were identified as “extremely vulnerable” are now unlikely to come into contact with it, especially if following safety precautions such as social distancing and hand hygiene.
Dr Frank Atherton, the Chief Medical Officer for Wales, said that “everybody who is currently in that shielding group will be able to go out to the shops, they will be able to return to work… they will be able to – in the case of younger people – return to school or to university, or college.” People who have been shielding for five months may well face difficulties or concerns returning to a normal lifestyle. Hoping to make life easier for such individuals wherever possible, the Welsh government will continue its prescription delivery service through September, while supermarkets will continue to ensure more “vulnerable” customers priority slots when ordering food online.
Some people have managed to live through shielding with a degree of normalcy, like Bryn Bailey, who lives in Ferndale. “I was just waiting for the all-clear from the government so I could go back to driving my other half to Tesco. She’s more scared of this COVID than me and she didn’t even have to shield!” he says. “In all seriousness, it hasn’t massively impacted on my way of living.”
Eleni Jones from Cardiff had her final school year cut short in March and has since been shielding to protect family. “Like a lot of people, I got used to living in lockdown and was almost afraid to come out of it. I have been taking small steps at my own pace, to get myself out there and enjoy what I have left of summer while still adhering to the guidelines.”
The so-called “end” of shielding marks significant progress in the country’s battle to suppress coronavirus, with the government now having the confidence to allow the most vulnerable in society to reintegrate. As with so much in this crisis, the lines are blurry, however; the numbers are relative, the transition from one stage to another not clear-cut. Some portion of the “shielding group” will prefer to stay home and avoid social contact except where necessary.
Others will launch themselves back into busy supermarkets, lively restaurants and family gatherings with vigour, having waited a number of months to resume normal life. There is nothing definitive about this “end”, either. Although all countries want to avoid a second wave and return to a strict lockdown, such a scenario remains a real possibility until populations achieve immunity from the virus.
The incidence of coronavirus in Wales could increase, as seen in other UK nations, and the situation could worsen yet. Considering this uncertainty, the Welsh government prefer to use the term “pause”.