England is coming out of lockdown - slowly. But what do the new rules mean for people with MS?
Claire Winchester, Head of Information and Engagement at the MS Trust, looks at what has changed this week.
With the shift in message from 'Stay at Home' to Stay Alert' in England, the government is beginning the process of returning to normality following the coronavirus outbreak. But for families affected by MS, will this relaxation of the rules make any difference to everyday life?
In brief, the Prime Minister's announcement on May 10th signaled that working people should be returning to work where possible and where it is safe to do so. This announcement was followed by the publication of extensive guidelines about what that means, and how it might be achieved in different kinds of workplace. Here is the government guidance on working safely. If you can work from home, then you still should be supported to do so by your employer. If you are required to return to a workplace, then discuss with your employer what steps have been taken to keep you safe. It is unlikely to be 'business as usual' anywhere.
People in England are also now encouraged to make more use of public outdoor space, and need not be exercising in order to do so. There is still great emphasis on safe and responsible behaviour when out of the home, including hygiene and social distancing. But, for the first time in some weeks, it is now allowable to meet one person not from your own household, so long as you remain two metres apart and outdoors. Outdoor sports and activities, such as golf and angling, may now take place, and you may drive in order to visit safe open space. Face coverings are recommended for use in places where social distancing is tricky, such as shops or public transport. Here are the guidelines on being safe outside the home.
However, these new guidelines from the government apply only to healthy people in England. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the rules on leaving the home have not changed. And for people identified as clinically vulnerable or extremely clinically vulnerable, the guidance is also unchanged. People with MS fall into one of these categories and so here are the current guidelines for both groups.
Extremely clinically vulnerable
If you have been sent a letter from the NHS advising you to shield yourself from all social contact, you have been identified as being extremely clinically vulnerable to COVID-19 infection. For more information on whether this applies to you, check the criteria on our coronavirus A-Z, or on the government's website.
People in this category still need to stay at home at all times and avoid all face-to-face contact at least until the end of June. The only exception to this is contact with carers and healthcare workers who you must see as part of your medical care. The government has said that they will be ensuring that people in this category have the support they need, and realise that it is a great challenge to adhere to this level of isolation from daily life.
All people with MS, along with people over 70, and those with other health conditions are considered to be clinically vulnerable. Here are the government criteria for the clinically vulnerable.
While there is no evidence to suggest that you are more likely to be infected with COVID-19, it is considered that you might be more at risk of severe disease or complications if you did catch it. People in this category should still be taking particular care with the guidelines around hygiene and social distancing.
But what does this mean for people with MS?
While others might be spending an unlimited time in the park, or arranging to meet a person from outside their household, people with MS, are still advised to avoid leaving the house unless essential. Towns, streets, parks and shops are likely to be busier than they have been recently, which can make social distancing more difficult. More shops and services are likely to open, although personal care (hair and beauty) and hospitality (hotels, restaurants and pubs) are still required to stay closed.
There is certainly potential for people affected by MS to be under increased strain. We recognise that there could be conflict for many people with MS between going back to work and staying safe and we have heard from many who are deeply concerned.
Your employer is responsible for ensuring that you have a safe working environment, and for communicating what they are doing to their employees. If you think your working conditions are putting you at risk, then you can ask the Health and Safety Executive to inspect your workplace and make sure you are safe. If you belong to a union, they can also advise you and your employer. ACAS can help you and your employer to implement the guidelines correctly.
For families with a mixture of vulnerable people, children and healthy adults, there could be new stress points in the future, perhaps when employers seek to bring people back to work, or when schools re-open. The provision of suitable essential care is also uncertain once more. If a furloughed person has been providing care to someone who is shielding themselves from social contact, what happens when they are called back to work? If this is a potential issue for your family, you could take steps to find suitable replacement support in advance. If you need professional basic care, this could be either through the government's register or through your local council. If you need shopping or medication deliveries then you may be able to find a local volunteer network.
If you are a parent, you may have already considered how you will feel about your children returning to school to mix with others. Speaking with the Head Teacher in advance to find out what they plan to do to keep staff and students safe could help put your mind at rest. If you need to return to work, but your children cannot return to school, childcare could be an issue. Employers and Head Teachers are clearly expected to be flexible, but no-one really knows yet how it will all pan out. It's usually sensible to keep communication channels open.
Every household faces different challenges in the coronavirus outbreak, and at the MS Trust we have clearly seen that having MS in the mix makes the situation more complex. If you would like to talk the guidelines over with someone impartial and informed, or you would like further information about your specific situation, do get in touch with our Enquiry Service. You can reach us on firstname.lastname@example.org or leave your name and number with us on 0800 032 3839 and we will phone you right back.
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