June 2, 2020

I will always remember where I was when I heard the news that the government had changed the lockdown rules for shielding.

Warning: this is almost certainly the most predictable “Where were you when you heard the news about…?” you will ever come across.

I can tell you exactly where I was — in my room. Of course I was in my room. Because, save for occasional visits to the garden, loo breaks and some time in the kitchen when it’s empty — and one trip to the hospital — that is where I have been for every moment of every day for the past ten weeks.

Along with two million others, I have been shielding. In my case, because I have a “serious underlying health issue” — leukaemia, which was diagnosed over five years ago (but which I have probably had for much longer) and for which I have been treated since January.

Which is why, when I left the house yesterday morning after the guidelines changed to allow me outside, it was not just the first time I had gone for a walk in 10 weeks. It was also one of the most weirdly emotional few minutes of my life.

When I received my NHS letter advising me to shield, on 24 March, I wrote for UnHerd about how it brought home to me what the cancer diagnosis, perhaps strangely, had not done: that this could be it for me. Were I to get Covid-19 I would tick almost every ‘he’s a goner’ box going because, in addition to my suppressed immune system — worsened by the treatment — I am clinically obese. So my mortality suddenly became a very, as it were, live issue for me.

I am by nature a stoic. Like all of us, throughout my life I have had a number of good and bad things happen to me. I tend to take the rough with the smooth, so even a cancer diagnosis did not floor me. It was something to deal with. And so in anticipation of at least 12 weeks in my room — the original NHS letter said shielding would be no less than that — I went on to various blood cancer support sites.

Most were focused on alleviating the expected boredom. This has never been, and has not been during lockdown, a problem for me. Too much to read, too much to watch, too much to listen to. But 10 weeks in my room has led to something new which has, sometimes, floored me. Not the fear of death, which I expected to be the worry and which I wrote about in March; my family have been brilliant at helping me shield, so I have had very little fear of the virus.

No, what has got to me has been a kind of low-level desolation which comes down to a combination of frustration and fear. I make no special claims here; much has been said elsewhere of the impact on, for example, grandparents unable to see their grandchildren or, even worse, the bereaved unable to say goodbye. And I have been in relative comfort. I still have a wonderful job. My family have all been free of the virus. My desk looks out on a large garden and we have had no problem getting food (if only we had, I might actually have lost some weight).

But for me, it’s the knowledge that I can’t even walk up the street and back, let alone potter to the corner shop. The most excitement I have been allowed is a trip to the loo.

It doesn’t sound so bad but it is soul-destroying in its sheer relentless nothingness. And it changes your character. Until now, not much has phased me in my life; all my displays of nerves have been of the useful variety. But in April, I had an appointment to see my consultant. I hadn’t had a blood test since January, so he said that this time a phone consultation wasn’t enough. I would have to drive in — don’t take a cab, he told me, the risk of infection is too great. I can barely convey to you the sheer terror I felt as I walked out the door. I have never felt such fear. I was sweating pools within seconds.

I told myself it was irrational; my face and hands were covered up, I was in my car and I was effectively as safe as in my room. But – as I know now, six weeks after that morning — that was all irrelevant. My reaction was the result of a character change. It is no longer death I fear; I fear life.

More specifically, I am now unsure about everything. What will happen when others are back out and about, attempting to create a new normality? How will I fit in? How can I fit in? Is this my new life — always on the outside, looking in, fearful?

But this isn’t the me I am used to. I have never been the nervous, querulous, timid person I have seen myself turn into these past 10 weeks. Which is why, when news leaked out on Saturday night that the shielding guidelines were being eased, I really did not know what to think or how to react. On the one hand, sheer joy. The excitement of being allowed out was genuine and deep.

But also a deep-seated angst. Not about the walk — I knew I would be safe, I wouldn’t touch anything, I was near no one — but a worry about what it represented. Because — this is where the new me kicked in — what if that’s it? What if the most I am allowed is a walk up and down the street? Or, even worse perhaps, what if I am allowed to do more? How do I react? Because while the prevalence of infection has reduced in London, I am no less vulnerable than I was. And that’s not something any decision by SAGE or anyone else can change.

I hear my mind racing with these thoughts now and I hate it.

I know, rationally, that every time I left the house pre-coronavirus there was a risk I might not come back. Life is full of risks. But this thing has turned me into the person I have always ridiculed – not so much risk-averse as risk obsessed. Questioning everything, worried about all of it — but, almost as strongly, angry about it.

I would like to report that, when I did finally leave the house yesterday morning, it was a joyous release. It wasn’t. It just felt very weird. Weird to be outside, of course. But also weird to be so unsure of what I was doing.

Everyone has had their own reaction to the lockdown. Our experiences have all been different. I have spent the past few weeks sneering at a genre of pieces that have appeared — that we must keep the good things about the lockdown and not return to the way we lived our lives before. Every time I read this drivel I swear inside with words that cannot be repeated. There is no upside to a global pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands and wreaked unparalleled destruction on the economy.

For me, its impact has been relatively simple. It’s stopped me being me. For all my many flaws, I’ve grown used to being me over the past 55 years. Now I have to get used to being someone else.