What does it mean to “just focus on protecting the vulnerable”?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen a point of view gaining momentum in certain quarters which is that we should never have had a full national lockdown and that we should be lifting all restrictions now so that the young and healthy can be free to live their lives without interference.  Instead we should focus on measures that protect the elderly and vulnerable.

Now, at first sight, that seems very compassionate doesn’t it. Our priority is to protect the vulnerable. It also seems very sensible. I also have a level of sympathy with it. As I have repeatedly said here, my personal view is that it would have been preferable to avoid a full lockdown. To some extent that might have been possible if we had quarantined people coming into the country sooner, had contact tracing up and running and protected care homes more effectively.  However, we did not manage to do those things and even if we had, I think we would have still had two major problems. The first is that we did not realise early on the level of impact from asymptomatic carriers of the virus and the second is that it is possible that the virus was in the country and out amongst the general population much sooner than is officially acknowledged. My suspicion is that it was in the country from December brought in from the cruise ships, ski slopes and people travelling between here and Asia to see relatives and on business.

In any case, here we are now with a virus that is widespread amongst society, that does not seem to be deadly if you are relatively young and healthy but is particularly vicious with the elderly and with particular underlying health complaints.

Now, here is the second complication.  If primarily you live and work among people who are relatively young, relatively healthy and in terms of age, class and ethnicity are fairly homogenous, then the idea of simply quarantining off the elderly and vulnerable seems quite straight forward. You can get on with your life, work in the office during the week and head to the pub, theatre or cinema at the weekend. Students can enjoy University life before hitting the nightclubs at the weekend. And Grandma, where is she? Well, she is safely ensconced in her luxury retirement village, closed off from the outside world and happy to settle for regular video calls with you (as far as you know).

Furthermore, if that is your cultural context and you are a Christian, then the same things are likely to factor into church life too. You will attend church and small group with people who are like you, youngish and healthy people.

Now let me take you into a different context away from that life style.  Let me take you to the inner city context of multiple generations living in the same house, or if and when Grandma and Granddad live in their own place, they see you regularly, they are out and about amongst the bustle od city life, they look after the grandchildren whilst mum and dad go out to work because even with both working long hours they are still nowhere near being able to afford paid child care.  Imagine a church if you will made up of the generations.

Then realise that when we talk about the vulnerable, we are not just talking about a few elderly people. Already, the over 70s make up a significant proportion of the population. Not only that but our “vulnerable category” includes people with a variety of health conditions so that once you are into your 50s unless you are still in peak condition you could be at risk. This is a virus that has put a Prime Minister and a TV host’s husband into ICU. This is an illness which may well be bringing longer term health effects even beyond the official recovery period.

With all of that in mind, now please tell me. “What do you mean when you say that you think we should let most people get on with their lives whilst protecting the vulnerable. If you mean that we should put them into permanent isolation until all of this is over then you are not only describing something potentially cruel and destructive but something that is frankly not possible. So tell me again, what is it you propose to do?  We’ve heard the rhetoric but we are still waiting for the clear answer.

Now, I, as much as anyone else want to see life return to normality.  As I have said many times, there are more ways to die than just on a ventilator from COVID-19. We need to find a way through this, hopefully to find a vaccine or cure sooner rather than later but also by being creative in order to find ways of enabling social interaction in a safe way. 

If that means that as a reasonably healthy, under 50s man that I have to experience some disruption and inconvenience. If it means I can only listen to songs in church and have to wear a face mask on the bus, then I have to say that those inconveniences don’t seem too bad a deal if it means that many others in society are able to enjoy a level of freedom and interaction in a relatively safe manner.

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