Around 80,000 people in Northern Ireland are shielding. Five of them tell Leona O'Neill about their worries for the future after lockdown
Father-of-one Conor Shields (54) hasn't been out of his house in 13 weeks. The chief executive of the Community Arts Partnership, who lives in east Belfast with his wife and daughter (7), says he hopes measures will be put in place to allow shielders to integrate back into society safely.
"I am shielding because I have rheumatoid arthritis," he says. "It's an auto-immune disease and the drugs I take have suppressed my immune system. We started quarantine because our seven-year-old daughter developed symptoms, then I got the shielding letter. So as of this week we are shielding for 13 weeks.
"I went for one walk between my daughter recovering and receiving the letter and that is the only time I have gone out.
"Our life has changed since lockdown in a huge amount of ways, and yet somehow we still try to maintain the same life.
"We are trying to homeschool our daughter at the same time when both of us are working remotely. Homeschooling would have been strange by itself, never mind trying to run organisations, trying to keep people paid and keep funding going.
"We get food deliveries from Tesco and one of my oldest friends pops around on a Saturday with a few bits and pieces also."
Conor says the messages coming through from the governments have been confusing for shielders and many shielders feel they are being "forgotten about".
"I'm concerned that as a so-called 'shielded person' that we've become very segregated from the conversations that are going on," he says.
"We have almost been forgotten about. When people talk about reclaiming the streets and making it accessible for cycling and having more pavement cafes, my concern is will it be socially distanced enough and safe enough that people like myself will be able to walk down those streets without fear?
"I am really concerned about the garbled scientific messages that really cause me a great deal of unease.
"I work in the arts. I can't see how the normally functioning social interaction of going to the theatre or a concert or a bar to listen to music will ever return until we have a critical mass of the population vaccinated.
"I'm pinning my hopes on a vaccination being the way for our household to get back to some sort of normal.
"I would like to see someone creatively address how to timetable time for those that have been shielded to be afforded some more security. Rather than just keeping us segregated and locked up in our homes, because that is no way to manage such a large population of people."
Frontline worker Anne Ramsey (52) lives with her wife Lorraine in west Belfast. The mother-of-two, who is a senior ophthalmic photographer at the Royal Victoria Hospital, says she "feels guilty about abandoning" her colleagues.
"I got my shielding letter at the beginning of March," she says. "I have a lung disease called bronchiectasis. I had whooping cough as a baby and it damaged parts of my lungs. I have had a flu and pneumonia before so I would be at high risk of getting them again. I am also diabetic.
"I had been taking holiday leave in February, and then I got my shielding letter the day I was due to go back. So it's been February since I was last at work.
"I had been through pneumonia before so I know what it's like and I know that coronavirus is harder to come out of if you get it."
She says there have been some frightening episodes for her during lockdown.
"I am diabetic as well as having lung issues," she says. "I ended up in hospital in the middle of March. I had been put on medication and it started to play havoc with my insides. I was panicking because I was shielding and was terrified of going to hospital. So I didn't go until the very last minute. I spent two days in bed ill and then finally went in. The staff were amazing and they took lots of precautions and it was fine, and I was allowed home.
"But we counted everything. When something went wrong and we had to have contact with someone, we would count two weeks before we felt safe.
"We still clean and wipe down all our shopping. We haven't seen the grandchildren since March 14.
"I have a retrosternal goitre which inhibits breathing and makes it hard to swallow at times. I was due to have surgery and had to cancel it because I was shielding."
Anne says she has been trying to keep busy.
"There are so many worries," she says. "But we are being resourceful and we are trying not to let ourselves be bored. I am a keen cyclist and I have set up some training in the bedroom, so I have been cycling all around the world from there.
"We haven't gone out, apart from the dentist and once we went for a walk along the back path when we knew that no one was around. And even then we were wearing gloves and masks.
"We haven't been going shopping, just getting deliveries. Our neighbours and family are so good.
"I play guitar and on the whim for our granddaughter we will learn a song, video it and send it to her. So if the grandchildren want to see us they will put on a video of us reading a book or singing a song. That means that they still have us when they need us."
She says she felt like a "draft dodger" when she had to leave work on the frontline.
"An antibody test would be the answer in my case," she says. "If I already had it I could go back to work.
"I'd love to go back to work. When I got the letter at the start, I felt like a draft dodger and like I was letting my team down. I had a lot of guilt at the start.
"I was there online to help, but there wasn't much I could do because I wasn't physically testing people. I just felt like I abandoned them all and was not sick enough to be on the shielding list."
Panhypopituitarism & hemochromatosis
Ballymena civil servant Sinead Reilly (43) says she hasn't gone further than her backyard in weeks.
"I am shielding because of my complex medical history," she says. "I have a condition called panhypopituitarism, a deficiency in the pituitary gland, I have asthma and I have hemochromatosis, a rare blood disorder.
"I have not gone out since I got my shielding letter, apart from to my backyard. I am afraid that things won't go back to normal. I am also on medication for depression and the lockdown has been affecting my mental health also. Isolation is not the best thing for you when you have depression.
"I am very lucky that I have good friends and neighbours and they have been helping me out and getting me things that I need and I have been getting priority delivery slots with the supermarkets. But you just miss being able to go out and pick your own."
Sinead has mixed feelings about returning to normal.
"My biggest fear is being stuck in here for the rest of my life," she says. "I'm really on edge sitting in the house all the time. And then I think, what if I go out and I catch something? So I have fears either way.
"I am scared. I would love for them to come out and say that they have found a vaccine, or that the virus has completely disappeared. But there is just so much uncertainty around the virus. I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place."
Diabetes and COPD
Londonderry man Louis Burns (53) says that he is anxious when asked to attend routine health appointments, such is the fear over the coronavirus and his conditions.
"I am shielding because I have Type 2 diabetes, I have severe sleep apnea and I have COPD," he says. "For the most part I have been sticking to my house. My neighbours have been great and going to the shops for me.
"In the news I am reading that the greatest fear, after the elderly, with regards the virus is for diabetics and those who are overweight. I am morbidly overweight. They say people like me are at almost twice as much risk of dying from this. I have no intentions of dying quite yet.
"What is really scaring me is that I have the first medical appointment since lockdown at the hospital now next week.
"I am really terrified about going to the health centre. The staff have assured me that it will be fine, that they will all be wearing the proper equipment and that there will be markers on the floor to tell me where to walk, but I am still scared."
Louis admits isolation has been a big issue for him also.
"Depression is inherited in our family," he says. "And if it wasn't for social media I might have gone bonkers. It has been a lifeline for me. I probably didn't acknowledge it before now, but it has become that for me.
"I don't know what the future will hold. I will be fearful about going out after all this. The coronavirus has just taken everybody by surprise."
Co Tyrone mum Roisin McMackin (40) is shielding her four daughters. Beragh girls Molly-Rose (13), Mary-Anne (12), Maisie (10) and Kesha (7) all have a genetic condition that puts them in the vulnerable category.
“My four daughters have been shielding since the middle of March,” Roisin (above) says. “They have not been out of the house since and there has been no one in our house since. The girls all have underlying issues as well as autism. Some of them are on growth hormone injections. The girls would have hypopituitarism, where their pituitary glands are undeveloped or small. As a result they don’t produce certain hormones. They all have a genetic condition, doctors are unsure as to what that is yet.
“Lockdown has meant that we have needed to be extra cautious. I have found that with some of the girls, their anxiety has heightened.
“The youngest girl won’t go out of the house at all because of the virus. She is scared. Getting her back to school will be an issue. Not that I’m in any rush to get them back.
“Homeschooling is hard sometimes. One of the girls just refuses to do online learning. It has affected their structure and their normal and sometimes when they get out of that structure, it’s hard to get them back into that.”
Roisin says that she will find it difficult to reintegrate back into society after such a traumatic time.
“As with all parents with children with additional needs, we expect there to be all this support out there for us,” she says. “But realistically in this pandemic, there has been no additional support.
“With regards going back out into society, things are never going to be the same. We have to accept that. There’s going to be some element of social distancing.
“With the uncertainty of no vaccine, and of the unpredictability of the virus it does leave people afraid to bring their shielding children to reintegrate into society.”