Here I am in Aberdeen, ensconced in a 16th-floor flat atop a multi-storey, with a view to die for (more of that later) – musing on living my life in the slow lane. It is the slow lane because a letter, signed 27 March, and received on 1 April, from Dr Catherine Calderwood, then Scotland's Chief Medical Officer (CMO), has effectively put me in enforced total isolation.
I had self-isolated on Sunday 15 March, my 73rd birthday, concerned that with three serious underlying medical conditions, coronavirus could deal me a deadly blow. I feel it might be helpful for me to outline to you the route along which I have become a 'higher-risker', and subsequently a 'shielder'. This should provide useful background information for the family and friends of fellow shielders. There are an estimated 120,000 of we higher-riskers in Scotland, presenting a serious and complex logistical challenge to the authorities whom are tasked with keeping us safe.
Dr Calderwood's nine-page letter was initially a bit brusque and very, very pointed. I was quickly identified as 'someone at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19'. Pretty blunt stuff for openers. However, and immediately reader-friendly and helpful, it was explained that if you needed support and had a mobile phone, you were asked to text 07860 064525, including your CHI number (the 10-digit number at the top of your letter) which connected to a text message service helping ensure you have the food and medicine you need while cooped up at home. That text number would also keep you updated with the latest information from the CMO's directorate. Non-mobile phone users were to access support by calling their local assistance centre whose contact details were available online at NHS Inform.
The letter, in an overture designed to reassure, explained: 'We know that this is a very worrying time, especially for patients with significant underlying illnesses. Your safety and the continued provision of the care and treatment you need is a priority for the Scottish Government and the NHS in Scotland. This letter gives you practical and detailed advice on how to protect yourself and access the care and treatment you need,' but unequivocally warned: 'the safest course of action is for you to stay at home at all times and avoid all face-to-face contact for at least 12 weeks from today, except from carers and healthcare workers whom you must see as part of your medical care'. All in all, I must admit, a difficult job very well and sensitively handled. Alpha marks all round. What a pity that all that splendid work was to be momentarily submerged in a mighty mishap for the Scottish Government.
Surrealistically, Dr Calderwood, who had been confidently, if perhaps a trifle schoolmarmishly, and adroitly steering Scotland's medical ship, was torpedoed in a blaze of extremely damaging publicity for the Scottish Government. Critically holed under the waterline by exposure in the Scottish Sun
newspaper, she confessed to having undertaken two weekend trips from her home in Edinburgh to a second family home in Fife – completely contrary to all her exhortations in her frequent television public service messages for us all to stay at home and only undertake travel when absolutely necessary.
In a bizarre Sunday afternoon media conference, televised live across the UK, she profusely apologised. Alongside her, Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly insisted she was of a mind to allow Dr Calderwood to keep her job because she was providing such a vital and valiant service to Scotland in a time of extreme crisis. However, with public opinion overwhelmingly condemnatory, Dr Calderwood later that evening resigned her £135,000-a-year post – adhering to the maxim 'never become the story'. Her double day-tripping was an act of almost unbelievable stupidity. What on earth was this highly intelligent woman thinking about? She did say that she had made the trips for a 'good reason', which she didn't divulge, so perhaps this particular sorry story has further to run. Personally, I am dismayed, and, indeed saddened, that such an exemplary public servant jettisoned a sparkling career in such an extraordinary affair.
I have now received an updated letter from the Scottish Government on my care in the face of the coronavirus threat. And now, very significantly, the politicians are running the show. The letter, dated 7 April, is signed by Deputy First Minister, John Swinney. The tone is much more emollient, much like Mr Swinney himself, regarded by his peers as a most amenable fellow. He explains it is a reminder of the steps I need to take to keep me safe, since I am '...shielding at home due to high risk of severe illness from coronavirus'. Shielding is a newcomer to my coronavirus lexicon, and I am not sure if I am as much actively 'shielding' as being 'shielded' from all the potential danger lurking out there. Or am I just being semantic and pedantic?
The letter contains considerable new material including details on being entitled to a free weekly grocery pack delivered to my door; priority access to supermarket deliveries for us shielders; and word on the launching of a new national telephone number which will help give us additional advice and support. This number will quickly put you in touch with local support in your area, run by your local council. There will also be support on getting access to the internet if you do not currently have access, or need help using online services. The letter stresses the need to join the newly assembled SMS Shielding Service, or contacting your local council's support line as the Government need to be able to check that everyone who is shielding is getting the support they need. Even if you don't wish support, please let your local council know to allow it to focus on those who do need support.
On these supermarket deliveries, we learn the Scottish Government has reached an agreement by '...working with the biggest supermarkets in Scotland, such as Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury and Morrisons, to make sure you're first in line when it comes to getting a home delivery. You'll pay for these groceries, but having a guaranteed delivery slot will allow you to choose what you want each week'.
The simplest way to find out more about this service, says the letter, is to make sure you join the SMS Shielding Service by sending a text from your mobile phone to 0786 006 4525 – only including your CHI number which, as soon as possible, will contact you using the service to provide details on how to get these priority supermarket deliveries. This number only accepts text messages. It does not take voice calls. The letter adds: 'Even when this service is launched, you'll still be able to carry on getting free grocery packs if you need them'. To get the free weekly grocery pack, you must text: 1Box to 0786 006 4525.
Unlike me, who is home alone, some high-riskers live in a household with two or more occupants. If the rest of your household are able to follow guidance on social distancing and reducing their contact outside the home where they can, there is also a set of instructions to be followed within the home. If they are complied with, there will be no need for the other people in your household to wear any special medical clothing or equipment.
If you don't wish to use the online service, or don't have a relative, friend or neighbour to go to the shops for you, you are entitled to the free weekly standard grocery pack – containing 19 basic food items and a couple of common household items. The letter advises: 'Your grocery pack will normally be delivered to your door by Brakes or Bidfood. Sometimes, your local council, a supermarket, charity or emergency service may also make the delivery. Whoever delivers your pack will leave it outside your door. This means that they will let you know they're at the door by ringing a bell or knocking, but will then step away to a safe distance. If there is no answer, then they will post a card through your door'. However, it is pretty likely that we will be answering the door as, perforce, we are not going anywhere in the near future.
Incidentally, my first letter wished to reassure me that I will still get the usual medical care I need during the lockdown period. Due to the situation, it explained that demand for all health services is very high and my GP practice would be in touch with me as soon as they could to arrange with me how best to ensure that usual medical care. And sure enough, my GP, Dr David Cooper, of Oldmachar Medical Practice, telephoned me within two days of me getting my letter to discuss my ongoing medical care. It was gratifying to know so speedily that the system was really working for my peace of mind.
Any essential carers or visitors who support you with your everyday needs can continue to visit provided they don't have any of the symptoms of coronavirus. If you need help with care should a carer become unwell, please visit Care Information Scotland's
website. The phone number for the new national helpline is: 0800 111 4000, and it will initially operate between 09:00 and 17:00 – although this could later be extended. People should only contact NHS 24 – by dialling 111 – if they are displaying symptoms which are particularly severe, which have not improved after seven days or which worsen during home isolation.