Normal life was snatched from Sarah Hemmings a year before it was from everyone else. In early 2019, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that can interfere with the brain and spinal cord, making everyday tasks difficult.
Then the pandemic struck.
Taking treatment for MS and caring with her husband for two young children, Hemmings stepped back from a job teaching at a local primary school and almost never left the house. She is now one of 3.8m people across the UK deemed clinically extremely vulnerable to Covid-19, advised until recently to “shield” from the outside world.
The government hopes the effectiveness and high take-up of vaccines will protect them once most of England’s legal restrictions are removed next week, although it says that people like Hemmings should consider going to the shops at “quieter times of the day”.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, meanwhile, has suggested administering variant-targeting booster shots to the group from September.
Yet given the UK is reporting more than 42,000 daily infections, up 50 per cent from a fortnight ago, the prospect of dropping the remaining coronavirus rules fills Hemmings with a mix of anger and apprehension.
“The guidance is appalling,” she says over the phone from the family home in Norfolk. “There are hand sanitizer pumps all over the place but Covid is an airborne virus.”
Hemmings worries most about the lifting of the requirement to wear masks in public places. Although double-jabbed and considered relatively safe by the government since it ended shielding advice on April 1, a recent test showed she hasn’t developed antibodies. Going for a coffee with friends or visiting a busy shop will once again feel too risky.
“They don’t sound like much, but those freedoms are a huge part of your world when you’re stuck at home,” says Hemmings. “Masks should absolutely be kept, and proper ventilation should be spoken about far more.
“[The clinically vulnerable] have been forgotten,” she adds. Politicians say everybody should “learn to live with Covid deaths” but “I feel like they’re talking about me. It’s really unsettling.”
Hemmings finds it hard to believe that a group of millions can be “ignored” so easily, claiming that prime minister Boris Johnson and health secretary Sajid Javid are “naive” about the risks coronavirus still poses.
“We’re a diverse group”, she says. “There are clinically vulnerable people with all sorts of conditions, jobs, all sorts of unique situations, but the guidance doesn’t take any of that into account.”
She has put off her plan to apply for another teaching job in September and, with another period of isolation looming, she is unsure what the future holds.
“On ‘freedom day’ I’ll be having pre-treatment tests and a few days afterwards I’ll be having an immunosuppressant infusion,” she says. “So fearful is probably the main emotion for the next phase.”
This is the 11th article in a series for the blog that explores the effects of the pandemic on people and businesses around the world