Op-Ed: Lifting COVID-19 Restrictions Puts Disabled People in Danger

Borris Johnson without a mask

Jeff J Mitchell / Staff / Getty Images

Rachel Charlton-Dailey (she/they) is an award-winning journalist specializing in health and disability. Her work is featured in publications such as Healthline, Huffpost, Metro UK, The Guardian, and Business Insider. Charlton-Dailey often uses their platform to spotlight issues that affect disabled people. Here, she explains how COVID policies in the U.K. aren't strong enough to protect the most vulnerable.

As the Omicron COVID-19 variant has continued to rage, it's been a pretty scary time to be an immunocompromised person here in England, where I live. Although it’s encouraging that daily COVID-19 cases are continuing to decrease, progress is still slow.

At a the beginning of February 2022, with the seven day rolling average of 153 cases per 100,000 people, U.K. case counts are still higher than before the last peak in December 2021. So it was worrying news for disabled people like me when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that he was removing the majority of COVID-19 restrictions in England by late January 2022.

This means that it is no longer a legal requirement to wear a mask at all in public, working from home won’t be necessary, and you will no longer be required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test or vaccination to attend events. 

Why the UK Prime Minister can only change Englands Covid-19 rules

While Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the U.K. government is actually only responsible for lockdown and COVID-19 restrictions in England. This is because, as devolved nations, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are all responsible for their own public health policies.

While many say this is an essential part of “getting back to normal” and “living with the virus,” for those of us who are most vulnerable to COVID-19, it’s terrifying. We know that we can’t learn to live with the virus and getting back to normal would mean excluding us from day-to-day life.

Before the restrictions were lifted, it was mandatory to wear masks in stores, restaurants, cafes, and hospitals—and anywhere else that was an indoor public setting. Even though fewer and fewer people were wearing them over time because of complacency, the fact that many still were made disabled and chronically ill people like me feel safe.

I shielded—meaning I stayed home and minimized face-to-face contact with others—for much of 2020, and then began to do so again at the end of the year [2021]. This is because I fall into what the British government classifies as "clinically extremely vulnerable" due to having multiple chronic illnesses. I barely saw any family and friends for most of January [2022], but cautiously, I began to see them again since COVID-19 cases seemed to be decreasing. I’m lucky that having a dog means I get to go for a walk daily and see my neighbors outside, but I’m conscious that my already tiny world will have to shrink again now that nobody will be wearing masks.

Masks were the one thing that helped disabled and chronically ill people like myself feel protected. Knowing people will no longer wear them in the U.K. leaves me feeling incredibly scared to go out in public.

I’ve spent much of the last two years fearing what will happen to me if I catch the virus for the second time; I had it in March 2020. Sure, people say Omicron is not much worse than a cold. But while I might not know how severe it could be for me if I caught it, I can’t risk what it might do to my already weak body.

Masks were the one thing that helped disabled and chronically ill people like myself feel protected. Knowing people will no longer wear them in the U.K. leaves me feeling incredibly scared to go out in public.

I’m lucky that being a freelance journalist means I can continue to work from home, but many others aren't as fortunate. The end to home working means that many employers can insist that their staff come back into the office and risk exposure to COVID-19, regardless of how vulnerable they are. The hope is that with the success of working from home, many employers will allow staff to work from wherever they’re most comfortable, but this isn’t guaranteed. 

As much of a toll as the pandemic has taken on my body in terms of fatigue and physical symptoms, the most harm has been done to my mental health by nondisabled people. They've not only brushed off my concerns, but they've actively expected me to sacrifice my safety so that they can live their lives as normal.

Although the mask mandate was only dropped last week, there is already a clear uptick in case counts in England. If this continues without masking, I worry there will be another surge.

Of course, for many vaccinated people, Omicron isn’t a major issue. But for me and other disabled people like me, the end of masking in England has meant the return of shielding. What’s scarier is that nobody seems to care.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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2 Sources
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  1. GOV.UK. Coronavirus (COVID-19) in the UK.

  2. Institute for Government. Coronavirus lockdown rules in each part of the UK.