A year ago, at the start of the first lockdown, I wrote for UnHerd about suddenly discovering that I was afraid of dying. It was the letter from the NHS advising me to shield that did it. Despite being diagnosed with a chronic form of leukaemia six years ago, which had worsened steadily to the point that I started needing treatment two years ago, I had — how stupid can one be? — never really contemplated my mortality.
But the knowledge that my immune system was so shot that were I to catch Covid I would almost certainly die was a sudden jolt of terror. I had no idea what the next few months held in store; only that the most sensible thing I could do if I wanted to see my children grow up was not to see them. (To be specific: I could see them, but not be near them.) One slip that let Covid in would in all likelihood be my last slip.
Well, here I still am. So let me tell you about the past year. I doubt any of the other 3,792,969 people who have been advised to shield over the past year will disagree with me when I say that it’s been what my younger self would have called a “headfuck”. Each of our stories is obviously different, but we all have one thing in common: that, weird and awful as the lockdowns have been for everyone, shielding is a different level of weirdness and awfulness.
At its most basic, it is a form of solitary confinement. For most of last year, while shielding was in place, I was living with my then wife and our kids. Living with, in the sense that we were in the same house. But I was in a room. Alone and specifically told not to interact with them. That is, let me tell you, not easy. I am by nature a stoic, but even stoicism has its limits. Hearing my children’s giggles and not having a clue what they were laughing about does not sound like a big deal. But when it lasts weeks — and then months — it is soul-destroying. It is a pretty visceral reminder that you are not part of their lives.
And much as I never really experience traditional boredom — too much to see, read, or listen to, always — the same four walls for months on end, without any change, generates a different, overwhelming sense of intense tedium. Throughout the months of shielding, the only change of scene I had was a three-week stay in hospital when it seemed my chemo had started to play tricks on me. (It turned out to be something else altogether, but the care and attention I received from the doctors and nurses was truly astonishing, given how on the floors above and below me they were dealing with genuine catastrophe.)
Then the cloud lifted in August, and shielding was suspended. When I nervously asked if that really meant I could go outside, my consultant said it was about assessing risk; if I took proper precautions, I had his blessing since it was relatively difficult to be infected in the open air. So for a few weeks I felt a sense of relative freedom.
It could not have come at a more appropriate time because, throughout all this, I had been in the final stages of divorce. The house was being sold and I was due to move. I rarely offer advice but here’s some for free: try not to schedule a divorce while shielding during a pandemic in the same house. God knows how I (or, to be fair, my ex-wife) would have coped, either mentally or practically, had shielding still been in place. As it was, I was able to view some flats, found one, bought it, and moved in on 30 November.
Then, after I had barely caught my breath, back came shielding. And I have been here, with only my cat for company, ever since. The first couple of months were a bizarre mix of freedom and desolation. Free, because instead of being stuck in my room I had the run of a three-bedroom flat. But what use is that, when the other two rooms were for my children who couldn’t use them because if they did, they might, er, kill me?
So when, three weeks after having the jab in January, I saw my consultant, I asked him the only question I really cared about: was it now safe for me now to see my kids? Well, he said, we simply don’t have the evidence yet as to whether the vaccine works in people with suppressed immune systems. We can only hope it does, at the moment. But then there’s the emotional damage of not seeing them — and to them of not seeing their father. So we decided I should bite the bullet, and they have been coming to the flat.
One thing I have realised over the past year, however, is that nothing is straightforward about this bloody disease. If it can find a way to screw with us, it will. Two weeks ago, a study was published showing that the vaccine is effectively useless for people with blood cancer. It’s not been peer-reviewed, I told myself. It involved a tiny number of patients; it might be deeply misleading. There were any number of straws at which I clutched.
But the results of the study were entirely in keeping with the expectation among many experts that the vaccine does not work for those of us whose immune systems will not react to it. So last week I took an antibody test to find out. It came back negative. I have, as the lab report puts it, “no serological evidence of immunisation”. Back to square one.
But that’s not quite the full story. Because this is where, for the first time since the start of the pandemic and all that has happened, I have moved from stoicism to fury and an anger so intense I sometimes need to sit down and take long breaths.
At the moment, we have almost no hard evidence to go on — just that one study and some random blood tests. And while there are some scientists who say the vaccine simply won’t work for immune-supressed patients, there are others who say it’s not that simple. For them, the issue is the gap between the first and second jabs.
For the vast majority of people, the decision to prolong that gap is of little consequence — and it has enabled the astonishing success and speed of the programme’s reach. But for 250,000 blood cancer patients, it may well be critical. The supposition is that while one jab may not be enough to trigger the right response, a second within the originally planned time frame might be. The fear is not that the vaccine is useless for us, but that the delay to 12 weeks between jabs could undermine any chance whatsoever that it could be effective.
And this is where it gets surreal. This has been pointed out to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which takes the scientific decisions on roll-out, as well as to the Department of Health’s scientists and the Government. Surely it makes sense to give the vaccine the best chance of working, goes the argument, and speed up the second jab for the relatively tiny number of blood cancer patients. The response, I am told, is that there is no evidence that it needs to be done quicker than 12 weeks — the pandemic equivalent of “computer says no”.
Of course, there is no evidence: almost no one with blood cancer has had both jabs, so it is impossible for there to be such proof either way. Exasperating doesn’t come close.
I worry that writing this makes it seem as if I am after some sort of special status, when I am well aware so many have had it so much worse. But it’s surely not much to ask that 250,000 people are given their second jab a few weeks early. We have — willingly, of course — put up with a year of bizarre existence. And now, after all the other blows, here comes an entirely needless one. Which makes me wonder: when will it ever end?