Today (31 March) will mark the last day for around four million clinically extremely vulnerable people in England and Wales to continue shielding at home.
People on the shielding list include those with various types of cancers, people on immunosuppressant drugs, or those who suffer with severe respiratory conditions, as well as others with multiple risk factors.
As of 1 April, these people will no longer be asked to shield to protect themselves from Covid-19 and will instead follow the rules in place for the rest of the general population.
The change will see 3.8 million people in England, and 130,000 in Wales, be allowed to venture out to supermarkets and socialise outdoors for the first time in months, although the government is still advising caution.
Shielders have been told to keep their social contacts at low levels, maintain “strict social distancing”, and continue to work from home where possible.
‘I’m slightly terrified’
While the relaxation to guidance marks a positive step in returning to normality, and comes following the success of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout so far, being able to go out and about again has been met with a mixture of excitement and concern from some shielders.
Sarah Newton, 48, from Derby, has been shielding at home since March last year after being hospitalised with pneumonia a couple of times, and has conflicted feelings about the change to rules.
She said: “I feel a mixture of excitement and nerves at the thought of venturing out.
“It feels like the first day at school all over again, I’ve got butterflies at the thought of seeing lots of people – yet I’m hugely excited about going into shops and into work.”
Ms Newton runs a small PR Agency called Penguin PR where interaction in the workplace is key to fuelling creativity, and while she is keen to return to normal working life, the return to normality is a little daunting.
“We need to be together to bounce ideas around,” she explained. “It’s so important when you are working in a creative role to have those discussions with other people - it’s just not the same on an online call.
“And while this is really exciting, I’m also slightly terrified.
“I had my first vaccine a while ago, so I shouldn’t be so nervous. But when you haven’t been out in the big wide world for ages you definitely feel a little bit institutionalised.”
Having the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine has given Ms Newton a sense of comfort, although she still plans to continue shopping online for the time being, despite no longer having to shield.
The return to work will also be approached with caution, with plans for staff to work on a rota basis in the long term, allowing people to switch between home and office working.
She added: “Creatively it’s definitely useful for as many of us to meet up as possible, but obviously the health and safety of our team is more important than anything.
“But, if the last 12 months has taught us anything, it’s that we can still function well by working at home and as an agency we are busier than ever. Moving forward I think we’ll operate a hybrid of the two and hopefully get the best of both worlds.”
Shielding on the horizon for Scots
While shielding is due to end in England and Wales on 1 April, people in Scotland will have a slightly longer wait until rules are relaxed.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced that shielding will end for Scots on 26 April, with all of mainland Scotland due to move from Level 4 to “modified” Level 3 restrictions on this date.
Adults who have been shielding will be advised that they can return to work from this point, children on the shielding list will be allowed to return to nursery or school, and students can return to college or university.
With the end of shielding on the horizon late next month, worries about easing rules are also high for some Scots.
Katie Harley, 28, from Inverclyde has been shielding due to chronic asthma, and despite having had the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, she still feels nervous about venturing out.
She said: “I think in general Scotland has been a lot more cautious with regards to lifting rules than say England, but after more or less a year of on and off shielding I do think it's just really nerve wracking.
“The impact shielding has had on my mental health has been quite bad, as I imagine it has for many.
“I will still be really cautious going out again.”
Ms Harley said she still feels socialising and returning to work pose a risk, but is looking forward to a gradual return to normal life.
She is hopeful that the second vaccine dose will help to quell any worries, but said she is “not entirely confident” she will feel completely safe.
Ms Harley said she hopes workplaces will allow people more time to adjust lockdown easing and be mindful of people’s anxieties as restrictions lift.
“The advice even right now is that if you're shielding, even if you've had two doses, keep shielding. So that makes me feel like the one dose isn't doing much for me
“I definitely think people should be given more time if they feel they need it. They might even not feel they need it but when the time comes, they experience anxiety around it.
“I've had a discussion with my manager and there's no rush for me to go back, I can go back when I feel ready and even then just one day a week if I want. I'm lucky that I can work from home.”