For Sian, a charity support worker from Northern Ireland who is in her 60s, Monday will be the first day back at work since March. She had successful cancer treatment last year, but remains clinically vulnerable and has been shielding since the start of the coronavirus crisis, rarely leaving the house and struggling to make ends meet; living off universal credit and statutory sick pay after her employer effectively refused to furlough her.
“I have to go back to work, I have no choice, I can’t afford not to,” Sian said. “It will take me at least 20 months to pay back the money I borrowed to pay my bills. I couldn’t get an advance from universal credit as I’m still paying back the advance from when I was off with cancer last year.”
From 1 August the government is no longer advising extremely clinically vulnerable people to shield from the virus. Support from the National Shielding Service – free food parcels, medicine deliveries and care – will stop, and more than 2 million people who are at high risk from coronavirus will be told they can go to work as long as their workplaces are “Covid-secure”.
“It’s very stressful, but I would feel less anxious if I knew what changes were in place,” Sian adds. “My line manager ignores emails and my manager told me to stop thinking about work when I’m off sick … We’ve had no explanations from anyone about why it’s considered safe from 1 August.”
Concern that many shielders will not be sufficiently protected has led the Trades Union Congress, which represents dozens of unions, to caution that people should not be forced to risk their health and return to workplaces. People shielding in Wales are not being advised to return to work until 16 August.
Caitlin, from Carlisle, is perhaps even more afraid. “I’m terrified. I’m trying to get signed off,” the food manufacturing factory worker says. “I’ve been having panic attacks all week after getting a letter from work explaining the process to going back.”
The 31-year-old has chronic kidney disease, anaemia and diabetes, which all contribute to serious difficulties breathing. With a confirmed coronavirus case at her work last week, she fears she could be a “lamb to the slaughter”.
“There’s no ventilation, nobody wears a mask, and there’s no social distancing … I don’t want to return, it’s not a good idea is it? I’d rather lose my job than my life, but I don’t have a sick note yet.”
With shielding letters from the government no longer valid, many may be frantically contacting their GPs asking for sick notes in time for Saturday.
“Pausing shielding and forcing us out of our homes now feels like an insult to the time we spent locked away – it feels like they’re risking our lives,” Caitlin adds, questioning why there is not greater support for those who cannot work from home and wish to continue shielding.
Many vulnerable people feel their jobs are at risk of redundancy in the post-lockdown economic slump, so are quietly following orders and returning to their jobs.
“I’m being put at risk; I don’t have any control over how close someone gets. There’s no danger if I’m at home,” says Ryan, from Kent, who works in printing and has been working from home throughout the lockdown. He takes immunosuppressant medication for multiple sclerosis which weakens his immune system, making him more vulnerable to coronavirus.
“I could easily continue to work from home if a few small daily tasks could be done by someone else,” he adds. “I’m very worried because we have not been told of any particular social distancing measures in the office.”
Ryan has not left the vicinity of his home for more than 130 days and is afraid of seeing scores of people a day in the shared kitchen, lifts and toilets: “When it’s quiet of an evening I go out for a quick walk around the block. I still won’t be going back to the shops.”
Others, however, have been more forthright in their refusal to return to work places, and, thankfully, their employers have been understanding – with many also being kept on furlough.
“I don’t see why I should put myself at increased risk, so I’m not,” says Pooja, who works in logistics for an online supermarket. She has diabetes and a severe vitamin D deficiency.
“I can’t get my head round why I should suddenly go back into contact with people I’ve been so meticulously avoiding for four months.”
She still feels there is a weighty onus on her to justify why she should not go back to work, and her partner – who is also her colleague – is now begging to also be allowed to continue to work from home.
“There is an incorrect assumption that some things cannot be done from home,” Pooja adds. “I’m not risking my life.”