New shielding advice gives vulnerable people hope 'but the lockdown has been hard'

People deemed most vulnerable to Covid-19 received 'shielding' letters outlining restrictions which, while protecting them from the coronavirus, meant a more challenging lockdown. We spoke to two of them

Geraldine Murphy and her 11-year-old son Daire, who has cystic fibrosis
Maureen Coleman

FOR the past week thousands of people across the north deemed particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 have been receiving letters with updated guidance on shielding. Up to 80,000 people received similar letters three months ago, at the start of lockdown, advising them to cocoon for 12 weeks.

While it's been a challenging time for most, the easing of restrictions for those non-shielding was broadly welcomed as we gradually moved from one phase to the next. But the people most at risk could only look on until chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride told them last week that they could now go outdoors. Social distancing measures must still be strictly adhered to by those who are shielding and they must still avoid crowds or gatherings of people.

Speaking last week as the letters began to arrive, First Minister Arlene Foster said this "reasonable and proportionate first step" was designed to give people hope. The updated shielding guidance applies until June 30 and further advice will be provided soon.

For those who have been cocooned in their homes for 12 weeks, the easing of restrictions has been greeted with a mixture of relief, excitement and trepidation.

:: GERALDINE MURPHY, from Enniskillen, has an 11-year-old son, Daire, who has cystic fibrosis.

“Cystic fibrosis is a genetic condition which affects the lungs and digestive system and Daire is on daily medication to help him to breathe. When the shielding letters started coming, I knew we would get one. We took him out of primary school a week earlier than everyone else, which meant he didn't get to say a proper goodbye to all his friends. That's been tough on him.

“Daire is an only child and while my brother and his three children only live next door, he wasn't able to spend time with them. There's been no-one else in our house since lockdown started except for me, my husband Joe and Daire. It's a challenging thing for anyone to go through, but especially for an only child. He's really been missing his friends and feeling quite lonely.

“It's been a worrying time too. I do still feel anxious about the virus because Daire is in the high- risk category. When you have a child with cystic fibrosis, you have to be extra vigilant. Every time I come back from doing the shopping, I clean the groceries and we all wash our hands regularly. My husband was advised to stop work so he was shielding with us, but he's back at work now. He was nervous going back but we're still being very cautious.

“Exercise is important to a child with cystic fibrosis. Daire loves football. He was named Footballer of the Year at our local club Belnaleck Art MacMurrough, and is itching to get back. I'm anxious about the opening of football pitches but it wouldn't be fair on him to stop him going and I know they'll be careful at the club and only allow a few kids to train at any one time.

"Meanwhile, he's been cycling, walking and using the trampoline in the garden. He's also been fishing with his dad. And I've taken him out for drives in the car when he's really fed up or missing his friends.

“The recent shielding letter we received which eased restrictions slightly, gave him a bit of hope. He was able to go fishing with one of his cousins, while still social distancing, and that really helped lift his spirits. He's been a bit stressed during lockdown and we've been trying hard not to make him any more anxious. It's just been so lonely for him but thankfully modern technology has been a lifesaver to allow him to keep in touch with his friends.

“We've been lucky with the good weather and we live in the country so there are plenty of places to go walking. But it's been hard. There have been times I've felt stressed too.

"We don't yet know what to do come September, when he's due to start at St Aidan's, Derrylin. I don't think he'll be able to travel on the school bus so I'll probably have to drive him there or he may have to be home schooled for a bit longer. I do feel concerned about a second wave for Daire's sake, but I have to try and take things one day at a time.”

:: ZANE DOWEY, from Lurgan, is 30 weeks pregnant and had Hodgkin lymphoma nine years ago

“Being in lockdown has been pretty challenging for me. I've had a really rough time with my pregnancy from the start. I've been constantly sick and was diagnosed with hyperemesis gravidarum [excessive nausea and vomiting]. But in the past, I suffered with my mental health and I began to feel really low and anxious again. I thought I might have prenatal depression.

"I was given two different anti-sickness tablets which have helped. The tablets were the same ones I had to take during my chemotherapy nine years ago, so I knew they would work.

“In February my mum took me to Bologna in Italy to try and lift my spirits as I was feeling so down. The trip away did me good; getting a bit of sunshine and being somewhere new. But this was just as Covid-19 was hitting Italy. A few days after we got home, I ended up in Craigavon hospital where I was diagnosed with hyperemesis.

"My husband Phil was with me and because I was a bit sniffly from sitting in the cold all night, I was told the infections team wanted to see me. I was tested by a woman in a mask and a hazmat suit. I couldn't see her face and it was so scary. I think I was the first person to get tested here and I remember feeling mortified that I'd be the one who brought Covid-19 here. I was sent home afterwards but thankfully the test results came back clear.

“I was signed off from my job as a family support worker for Barnardo's and have been more or less stuck in the house ever since. I had to go out on five separate occasions for medical appointments and scans and recently I managed to get out for a walk in a remote location, for the sake of my mental health.

"With the easing of restrictions, I can now go for a walk with Phil but I haven't seen my friends for months. I miss my niece, who's seven, so much. There have been times I have felt really isolated. I have a phobia of needles but I got excited at the prospect of going to the doctor's for my whooping cough injection. That's how bad things had got!

“I finally got to see my dad for Father's Day when I went down home to Bangor. I can't wait to see all my family and friends again properly. While lockdown has been hard, it's made me appreciate the little things, like the smell of the sea. I learned how to loom and embroider in lockdown. I was too sick to focus on reading or baking.

“I'm both anxious and excited about the further easing of restrictions but I won't be heading to a beach or a shopping centre any time soon. As long as Phil is by my side when I have the baby in August; that's all I'm focused on now.”

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