Only connect: 10 ways to be a good friend to those who are still shielding

Now that almost all pandemic restrictions have been lifted in the UK, many of us are enjoying getting our social lives back. But if you are clinically vulnerable, you might still be living with self-imposed rules, such as avoiding the indoors or crowds. With more than 3.8 million people in the UK previously told to shield in lockdown, statistically, most of us will have friends or family who are in this boat. It can be a hard thing to navigate. How can you support them and keep relationships going? Here are 10 ideas.

Anyone who is sick or stuck at home knows that even close friends often go eerily quiet. That’s understandable. The pandemic has been hard on everyone and it can be difficult to know what to say about health. But a message from a friend can mean the world, especially when you are isolated. Don’t fret about the fact you have not been in touch sooner or worry about the perfect thing to say. Send that “monkey covers eyes” emoji today.

It would be easy to think that once your loved one is double jabbed, things will go back to normal for them. Up to half a million people in the UK will not be fully protected by the vaccine because of their health condition or certain medications, while no vaccine offers 100% protection. Understand that, for high-risk friends, the “new normal” may mean living with precautions for a while yet – and recognise that they still want to do all the things they used to, even if they currently can’t.

In a pandemic, there is no greater sign of love than getting vaccinated. Evidence shows that being jabbed yourself will give clinically vulnerable people around you extra protection. Announce your vaxxed status to them with pride.

Some people who are extremely vulnerable to coronavirus may still be shielding. Others might be going out but avoiding big indoor gatherings, or just need time to acclimatise after spending more than a year at home. Keep inviting your friends to events – even if you know you’ll likely get a “no” – with the caveat that you understand. Saying: “I know you may not be able to come but I just wanted you to know we’ll miss you!” will help them to feel they are not forgotten.

Understand that social plans with a clinically vulnerable friend may need to differ from those with your mates who live with lower risk. Offer to get a lateral flow test before meeting up. Tell them if you have been in a packed club the night before. Wear a mask if you are travelling together. If you go for a drink in a pub garden, offer to go to the bar so they don’t have to go inside. Steal their wallet first.

You don’t have to be clinically vulnerable to be deeply affected by the pandemic – maybe you lost a parent to the virus or you are scared of catching it and passing it on to your high-risk girlfriend. If your mate seems anxious about doing things you are happy to do, don’t judge or compare them. One person’s risk perception is not the same as another’s.

Clinically vulnerable people have had more to think about during the past year than getting sick. Maybe your sibling with rheumatoid arthritis is in a pain spike because she has been unable to go swimming for a year. Maybe your colleague with asthma is apprehensive about coming back to the office when furlough ends next month. Sending a quick message to check in with them may mean a lot – and help them talk if they need to.

Seeing pals having fun without you on Instagram may trigger a pang of Fomo, but sending those who are unable to join a photo directly will probably make them smile. When some friends had a night out recently, they sent me a photo while they were there. I didn’t realise how much I had missed their “I’ve been drinking!” faces. Try something similar next time you are out. It might help your shielding mate feel connected to the outside world, as well as involved in your life.

Life goes on and high-risk friends will still want to hear all about yours. But be thoughtful. If you want to stress out about how hard it is to pack for your holiday, don’t vent to a friend who hasn’t left the house for a year. If you are using group chats to organise a social event that one member can’t go on, know your friend is still reading it – so say you will be thinking of them.

No one knows your loved one better than you. Your high-risk friend may still be shielding, or they could be screaming “FREEDOM!” while logging back into Tinder. If in doubt, ask. At the very least, they will know you care. That’s a lot in itself.

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