from John F. in Tadcaster, UK. August in North Yorkshire.

Post no 14.  August 17. We are well behaved in this rural part of the country; masks are universal and even in the little village shop when the postmaster hands me my morning paper, I don a face shield. So far there is no sign of the virus erupting again, as it has in West Yorkshire, not so far away. The local hospital has not had a death since June 18th.

Some of the restrictions are proving frustrating. I saved Rishi Sunak £100 by taking all my grandchildren and parents to a wonderful tapas restaurant last week on a Thursday, just missing the £10 a head gift. The food was excellent as always (far better say the Spaniards whom I have taken there, compared to what they get at home) but the complex ordering system made me cross.

The menu was on the internet, so I printed off copies for everyone to save time. However we could not simply tell the shielded waitress what we wanted, but had to download the menu and an ordering system from a mobile app. As we were spread over two tables there had to be two orders and drinks were also online. The whole ordering process took 45 minutes but the waitress finally relented and accepted a drinks order before we had entered it on the mobile. Payment had to be made before the order could be sent to the kitchen; later the whole process was restarted for the ice creams etc that the children wanted.

Sandsend Beach, north of Whitby, UK

Like many people I am still a little uncertain about the regulations; I may well have been breaking them when my wife and I went to the beach at Sandsend, a little village north of Whitby. On a lovely sunny day we joined our grandchildren for a light lunch on the terrace of their holiday house and then in deckchairs on the beach. But what a wonderful orgy of nostalgia it was, as I used to go to that same beach 75 years ago just after the war.  However the young now have 21st century equipment such as wet suits and surf boards and are far more active than I ever was.

The weather has been far cooler than in the south of England and as a result our harvest has barely started. However those farmers that have combined, report low yields of poor quality barley – fit only for cattle feed rather than milling for food (or beer). Straw is very short and stubby so the income from this will be negligible. Wheat has still to be harvested and the potatoes are being drenched by huge irrigation pipes.

As ever, our local church has been slow to restore normal operations. It provides one Zoom service on Sundays for all four parishes in its benefice and a live one in the biggest church; it then lets the local churchwardens open up their churches for private prayer an hour once a week. No plans are given for full live services in the three smaller churches.

from David Vincent from Shrewsbury, UK: The Community Reassurance Team Hotline

July 8.  Late yesterday afternoon, as the rain clouds were beginning to obscure the Welsh hills, the phone rang.  It was Catherine from Shropshire Council, calling me because I was on the NHS list of those shielding from the coronavirus.  She had three questions.

The first related to the announcement that from the end of the month, the shielded were no longer to receive their weekly food boxes.  Could I cope with this?  I told her that I would not go hungry.  I had stopped the delivery of the boxes some weeks ago and was being supplied by supermarket home delivery.  Nonetheless, I was impressed by her concern.  When last did the government take a decision that might cause you harm, say a reduced service or an increased tax, and then ring you up and ask if you minded about it?  This is a good precedent.

The second was whether my house was fitted with a smoke alarm.  I was puzzled by the question, but then wondered if the lengthening list of coronavirus symptoms now includes spontaneous combustion.  You will recall that this was the misfortune that befell the alcoholic rag and bone merchant Mr. Krook in Bleak House.  Dickens insisted that he had documentary evidence that such a death could occur, and there has been debate about it ever since.  I assured Catherine that we had two alarms and she seemed pleased with the answer.

The third was whether I would like the number of the newly established ‘Community Reassurance Team Hotline.’  I was entranced by the prospect.

‘Hotline’ perhaps not so much.  Since the term was introduced to the English lexicon, referring to the dedicated line American and Russian Presidents use to try to prevent a nuclear war breaking out, as in Dr Strangelove, the word has lost much of its urgency.  Every over-stretched public or commercial body offers such a service in order to keep clients and customers at bay.  A ‘coldline’ is a number which you ring, is never answered, but it doesn’t matter.  A ‘hotline’ is a number which is never answered, but it does matter.

‘Community’ is more promising.  Although, like hotline, it has lost much of its meaning in recent years, it is enjoying a renaissance in the pandemic.  The local Parish News has just resumed its monthly delivery.  It has a centre spread of all the services being performed across a distributed rural population of some 800 people.  Twelve separate activities are mentioned, too many to list here, but they range from ‘those who kept in contact with people living alone and/or self-isolating’ to ‘everyone who shopped and collected medical supplies for those unable to go out’ [which includes our neighbours collecting our prescriptions] to ‘the Groves who have made the Montford pond area a delightful wild life oasis and a resting spot for walkers and riders’.  This is real.

‘Team’ is good.  If the helpful Catherine is relocated to the parking fines division, it is comforting to know that a multi-skilled group of officers stands ready to continue the service.

But ‘Reassurance’ is the prize.  No official body has ever offered me this.

I need reassurance that my children will keep their health and their jobs, and that I will recognise my grandchildren when next I see them.  I need reassurance that the shops, restaurants, theatres, cinemas that I once enjoyed will still be there when I go out.  I need reassurance that when I do mix in company, it will not immediately constitute a lethal threat to my health (see ‘shielded’ above). I need reassurance that the apparent incompetence of every level of English government above the local is a mirage that will dissolve in the summer sun.

And now all I have to do is pick up the phone to get it.  But only in Shropshire.  I’m sorry for the rest of you.

From John in Brighton: Shielding – To be or not to be?

20 June

How do you link “shielding”, a packet of biscuits and a sharp rebuke? The obvious answer is too much comfort eating but you’d be wrong. My daughter spotted gluten-free biscuits on the shopping list I gave her last week and leaving no stone unturned a third degree ensued on why (I’m not gluten-intolerant), who was coming over, indoors or out, how many people…? Definitely won’t be in the house I reassured her but had to hedge a bit that there might be two people. Cue for a reprimand and brief homily on safest option being total abstinence of any social contact. Floundering on the ropes I point out that since 5 June shielders can spend time outside with someone from another household. A bit of Socratic irony from my son “Do you trust everything the government says?” “Well no actually” and that’s as good as a knockout punch. Case won in favour of the prosecution.
Strictly speaking they are right and what is clear is that their sentiments are entirely well-meaning and out of concern for my health and welfare. But equally after nearly three months the shielding does take its toll and that’s despite my going out on my bike (with social distancing) to maintain my sanity. I’m blessed with a garden but even so the glorious weather exacerbates the frustration. And to rub a bit of salt into the wounds we see progressive relaxation of lockdown for swathes of people up and down the land. But perhaps that reinforces the importance of ongoing shielding – a second wave is always potentially waiting to pounce like an angry cat.
Some shielders and indeed some support groups talk of an increasing two-tier society and the shielders’ desire to return to some sort of normal life. There is speculation this week that imminent changes could include the abolition of the need for shielders to isolate at home from the end of July and based entirely on clinical evidence.. But let’s remind ourselves we are the “extremely vulnerable” (sic). I’m a pensioner with additional health risks and an article in The Guardian a month ago starkly demonstrated how age was a key risk factor. The over-65’s are 34 times more likely to die from Covid than those of working age and 88% of the deaths were in the over-65s. 
So I acknowledge my offspring’s concern and that extreme vigilance is still the only guarantee of safety. The down-tick of cases and deaths should not induce any feelings of security and the case is made for ongoing shielding – short term pain for long term gain one hopes. I haven’t claimed the food parcels nor the prioritisation at supermarkets – it’s much more fundamental than the “perks”, it’s trying to minimise risk and maximise survival. Prolonged isolation can impact mood and mental health and if I were following Socrates I might be seeking out the hemlock by now. Instead I’ll turn to the meditations of Marcus (Aurelius not Rashford although the latter is clearly wiser and more proactive than BJ) and I think his advice would be similar to the offspring. Better to be the also-rans in a two tier society and it’s the utmost caution for the foreseeable future – “Carry on Shielding” is the one they never made so where’s Kenneth Williams when you need him?

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: unshielding

June 1.So, a new month, the beginning of meteorological Summer, and the un-lockdown begins. 

There is a special concession for the ‘shielded’, who, like me, have not been out of their house and garden since the last week of March (except for a medical check-up).  My thanks to David Maughan Brown for pointing out the irritating misuse of the verb ‘shield.’  On the other hand, ‘extremely vulnerable’ would appear to be a phrase with meaning.  Now we appear to be slightly less so.

The advice on the government website, updated yesterday, is as follows:

“People who are shielding remain vulnerable and should continue to take precautions but can now leave their home if they wish, as long as they are able to maintain strict social distancing. If you choose to spend time outdoors, this can be with members of your own household. If you live alone, you can spend time outdoors with one person from another household. Ideally, this should be the same person each time. If you do go out, you should take extra care to minimise contact with others by keeping 2 metres apart. This guidance will be kept under regular review.”

This is of course just for England.  Over the border, shielded or not, I can still be arrested if I drive more than five miles into Wales.  The change is scarcely a revolution, but it has raised two profound concerns. 

The first, which has been immanent throughout the crisis, is that the category of ‘extremely vulnerable’ covers a whole host of conditions. It places in the same situation those with only a marginal extra risk and those who should not be out of their home under any circumstances – coronavirus scarcely the only threat to those whose immune system is completely shot.  Without detailed medical advice, which is generally not available (as I know myself), it is next to impossible to make the judgment call about going out of doors.

The second is that the change, and the broader relaxation for the unshielded, is driven more by political convenience or economic urgency than by medical reality.  The ‘R’ rate is still perilously close to 1, and the improvements in the infection rate are at best patchy across England.  No one was convinced when the Number 10 briefing came out with the tortured explanation that the country, whilst at level 4 of risk (where everyone should be in lockdown) is ‘transitioning’ towards level 3.  Further, whilst London may be getting safer, the rest of the country is not necessarily doing so.  Over the last ten days, the infection rate for Shropshire has increased from 233.2 to 253.2.  The scores have also risen from 275.6 to 301.8 in nearby Stoke-on-Trent, and from 267.0 to 288.2 in Manchester. 

As critics have pointed out, we need a much more nuanced approach to the vulnerable, and we need in place an effective track and trace system before we make any significant change to the lockdown.  This was argued in an excellent article on Saturday by Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at Edinburgh University, and her colleague Yasmin Rafiei:

“What we suggest instead is a general strategy of suppression, where governments make a commitment to keeping daily new cases as low as possible through an active testing-and-tracing programme and real-time monitoring of transmission. At the same time, the government should advise those in “shielded groups” about their individual risk, as well as provide them with data about transmission within their communities, and then leave these individuals to make an informed decision about how and when they would like to engage in society.”

Just so.

In the meantime, the changes are bringing some joy.

My five-year-old grandson was so pleased about the prospect of going back to school (four days a week from this Thursday) that during the hour-long family Zoom meeting on Sunday he insisted on wearing his school uniform throughout.

And I have a Finnish friend who tells me that in her country the relaxation of the two-metre rule has been welcomed, as it enables people to go back to their natural distancing of five metres.