'Forced back into shielding': Cancer patients fearful of life after Freedom Day - charities call for caution as Covid rules relax

Cancer charities are urging the nation to continue wearing a mask for the sake of their neighbours

With remaining Covid restrictions in England ditched from 19 July, cancer patients have been left feeling uneasy about life beyond ‘Freedom Day’.

It comes as Macmillan Cancer Support reported that 3% (about 70,000 people) said they did not think it would ever be safe for them to return to the way their life was before the pandemic.

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Christopher Riley, 52, who has been living with chronic leukaemia for 13 years, in London, shares a similar feeling.

Like others with a serious condition, he has been shielding throughout the pandemic; working at home and ordering groceries to his doorstep.

The prospect of going out to dinner again at a restaurant was something to look forward to.

Christopher Riley is the chair of Shine Cancer Support group in London and is fearful cancer patients will retreat indoors as mandatory mask wearing is scrapped.

Now that feeling has changed.

‘Forced into shielding again’

Riley said cancer sufferers will feel like they are being forced to shield again as the nation marks significant changes in Covid laws.

Henny Braund MBE, chief executive of blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan

In England, social distancing rules have been dropped along with limits on social gatherings, although mask-wearing in certain spaces, including supermarkets and on public transport, is still encouraged and will remain mandatory in some situations.

Riley, who is part of a Covid medical trial with University College London, took over as chair of Shine Cancer Support group six years ago to provide support to younger cancer patients in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.

Some 4,000 members were finding themselves slipping through the NHS net and now chat regularly on Facebook - particularly about life during the pandemic.

He said: “From what I see from the Shine community, a lot of people feel as though they are being forced back into shielding.

“I think it started to feel a bit like the old normal but if people are going to choose not to wear masks and not to distance - I think it’s going to force a lot of people to stop doing some of the stuff they were starting to do again.

“People were trying to grab some of their old life back and that’s going to prove difficult now because there’s no safety necessarily.”

‘Can’t take the risk’

“If the Delta virus wasn’t rising so rapidly, I might feel a little safer doing stuff but the numbers are really alarming and the predictions - and essentially I can’t take the risk because it’s so transmissible,” Riley added.

“I might dash into a supermarket to grab an odd thing if no one is around in the early morning - but that’s a fairly recent change in the last four months. I’ve still not been to pubs or restaurants.”

‘Do not leave them behind’

A survey of 2,156 adults with a previous cancer diagnosis, carried out by Macmillan Cancer Support and YouGov, found that many others were worried about rising cases of the Delta variant and its impact on their safety.

Almost one in four (23%) thought it was unlikely the Covid vaccination programme would allow life to return to normal and almost one in three (31%) were concerned about new strains of the virus disrupting vaccine effectiveness.

Henny Braund MBE, chief executive of blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan, told NationalWorld: ‘While I understand that many people are looking forward to fewer restrictions, we need to remember that hundreds of thousands of people remain extremely vulnerable to Covid.

“People with blood cancer, who have been shielding with their families for nearly 18 months, have told Anthony Nolan that they can’t simply ‘get back to normal’ because they are less protected by vaccines.

“We urge everyone to keep wearing a face mask and keep your distance in public spaces as a way of protecting those who are most vulnerable to Covid-19 Do not leave them behind; wear a mask to look out for your neighbours, friends and colleagues.”

‘Day of real worry’

Gemma Peters, CEO of Blood Cancer UK, has asked the nation to follow three simple rules.

She said these rules will protect people with invisible illnesses including wearing a mask in crowded spaces, keeping distance from people and getting the vaccine to reduce transmission.

She said: “I know for lots of people that this is a day they’ve been looking forward to for a long time and they are looking forward to having some more freedoms back.

“But for other people, people who are more vulnerable to Covid, people with blood cancer, people with illnesses that compromise their immunity, it’s a day of real worry because people don’t know what other people are going to do and what impact that might have on them.”

‘Still remains time of anxiety’

Helen Gravestock, associate director of policy, influencing and voice at Young Lives vs Cancer, said it still remains a time of not knowing.

"As many others welcome a return to 'normal' with most coronavirus restrictions being lifted in England, such as the wearing of face coverings, we ask people not to forget about the young cancer patients and their families who continue to face the added stress and worry of cancer during the pandemic.

“We know some of the young people we support are also looking forward to restrictions easing but that for many others this remains a time of anxiety.

“The mental health impact of the uncertainty and the feeling of being left behind can be extremely hard for children and young people living with cancer. We continue to be there for them."