During Prime Minister’s Questions on 19th January, Boris Johnson announced that all Plan B Covid-19 restrictions, including mask-wearing, would expire as of 27th January.
It was the news much of the country had been waiting for, a return to normality free from Covid-19 passes, working from home and mask mandates. Some even dubbed it a second ‘freedom day.’ However, the announcement left disabled and clinically vulnerable people like me in fear.
We have been amongst the most vulnerable groups in society for the entire pandemic. We were initially told to shield and those in public-facing positions were given extended furlough schemes once retail and hospitality began to open again after the first lockdown.
Yet, despite accounting for 17.2 percent of the population but nearly 60 percent of Covid-19 deaths, we’ve largely been forgotten about and left to our own devices. Shielding and furlough schemes came to an end long before we had any real control over the virus.
And now, without the few government restrictions that were in place to reduce transmissions, we’ve been left feeling more vulnerable than ever.
So, while the majority of the population are no longer concerned about Covid-19 — particularly given reports that Omicron is a “milder” form of the virus than previous variants — for vulnerable people with compromised immune systems and underlying health conditions, the impact of catching it could still be dire.
It’s forcing many of us to make an impossible choice. Income or safety?
I have CFS/ME, a chronic health condition that causes debilitating fatigue, brain fog, muscle pain and a host of other symptoms. It also means I’m more vulnerable to catching illnesses and makes it more difficult to recover when I get sick.
I work in retail, a public-facing position that means I’m confronted by maskless shoppers on a daily basis. And, between growing numbers of people not wearing masks and a study that shows that shops pose the greatest risk of catching Covid-19, more often than not, I dread going to work.
I’ve even considered quitting on more than one occasion.
But I can’t. My public-facing retail job accounts for over half of my monthly income. And as the sole income earner, it’s something I’m not in the financial position to give up. On top of this, without the fear of Covid-19, it’s a job I really enjoy doing. It’d be devastating to leave.
I’m not the only one having to make this choice. I spoke to three disabled people who feel like they’ve been forced to choose between their health and livelihoods.
Anonymous, she/her, CEV due to severe asthma
One woman, who chose to remain anonymous, has encountered ableism almost daily since the end of the shielding programme. “Even though the government’s advice has been to work from home if you can, and I’m not a key worker, my manager regularly goes into the office and the expectation is that I should too.”
At a recent meeting, her manager told her to consider looking for a job elsewhere if she planned to continue working from home. “People say ‘protect the vulnerable and disabled,’ but every action they take demonstrates that they don’t care,” she says.
“Like everyone else, my mental health took a battering during the lockdowns, but to be treated like I’m workshy instead of somebody desperately trying to keep themselves safe has made it plummet like never before.”
Mono, she/they, POTS and asthma
Mono had recently qualified as a phlebotomist and medical assistant when Covid-19 hit in March 2020. “Due to having POTS — a chronic illness that affects my heart, respiratory and immune systems and blood pressure — as well as asthma, I knew I couldn’t work in person in the field as I’d be at a very high risk of infection.”
After trying a career change that ultimately didn’t work out, she had to fight her school in order to delay her clinical rotation. “After months of postponing, they decided to send me to clinical rotation in the middle of a surge and I ended up doing it.” They felt like they didn’t have a choice.
Sam, they/them, EDS, dysautonomia and chronic fatigue
And for freelance artist and museum worker Sam, they’ve lost a lot of income during the pandemic due to being unwilling to put themself at risk. “The fear I have is that long Covid would cause a relapse of the worst impacts of my health conditions, resulting in the inability to work for months.”
Just a few weeks ago, Sam made the decision to pause their current work in community engagement at a museum in Yorkshire. “Very few staff members wear masks and when Covid cases rose significantly with the Omicron variant, I felt it would be safer for me to work from home. But, my role would be impossible to do remotely with everyone else working on-site.
“It’s unfair that I’m being forced to take a financial hit due to not feeling safe at work but without any direction from the government to keep vulnerable people safe, the decision to protect my health as someone with a chronic health condition is made to feel like a personal choice.”
It’s a decision nobody should have to make. But with the government’s latest round of restriction relaxations, far too many of us are having to make that choice.
Disabled people are once again being forgotten about and being forced to choose between financial stability and our safety is genuinely terrifying.