‘It’s like a carrot being dangled’ – Couple forced to retire due to ill health on how it feels to be waiting for a vaccine after a year of shielding

Date published: 20 January 2021

The rollout of the country’s coronavirus vaccination programme appears to be off to a good start.

Nearly 4 million people have had their first jab – including the over-80s, care home residents and NHS and social care staff.

From this week the vaccine will start to be offered to two more priority groups where supply and capacity allows: the over-70s and the ‘extremely clinically vulnerable’.

For Ilise Gunder and her partner Allan Pearson – both of whom fall within the latter category – it can’t come soon enough.

The couple, from Bamford in Rochdale, have been ‘literally housebound’ since they began shielding last March and are desperate to get their lives back.

Ilise, 42, has MS and while Allan is a Type-1 diabetic awaiting a kidney transplant.

News of the extended vaccine rollout would appear to be a godsend but Ilise – who also has asthma – is wary of getting her hopes up just yet.

“I’m still exceedingly sceptical, because the government seems to have made quite a lot of promises but haven’t necessarily come through with them – certainly not in the timescales they have projected,” she says.

“On one hand it’s brilliant, I’m sure we will hear very soon, but I’m still really quite sceptical. It’s one of those: I will believe it when I see it.”

Ilise – mum to 10-year-old Zac – says the prospect of getting some normality back is frustratingly close.

“It’s like a glimmer of hope – but it’s not quite there yet,” she adds.

“That’s how it feels It’s like a carrot being dangled in front of you: ‘Yes, look what you can get – but only when we tell you we can have it’.

“It’s a strange, strange feeling. It’s not pleasant.”

Both Ilise – whose MS treatment has weakened her immune system – and Allan, have both been forced to retire through ill health over recent years.

Ilise used to work at the North Manchester General Hospital – ironically in the research department for infectious diseases – before having to give up work 18 months ago.

And Allan was forced to leave his dream job as a motorcycle instructor due to sight problems related to diabetes complications.

The 39-year-old, who also worked as a produce manager for Tesco, retired in 2013. He now has about 70% vision in his left eye, and 40% in the right.

Yet the couple were leading a full and satisfying life before the pandemic struck, enjoying trips to the park with Zac, meals out and visits to the gym.

And while Ilise accepts groups need to be vaccinated in priority order, she feels younger shielders have been left out of sight and out of mind.

“It’s been nearly a year now, myself and my partner are quite young, but our lives and our treatments have been put on hold,” she said.

“We’ve literally been housebound apart from hospital appointments. We seem to have been forgotten about – not just ourselves but all those who have been shielding that are young.

“Just because we are shielding doesn’t mean we’re in our 50s, 60s and 70s. I’m just into my 40s – we do have lives. Yes, we are disabled but we make the most of it like everyone else does.”

The mum-of-one added: “We don’t feel like we are being remembered. It’s like ‘you just stay in the house and we will get to you’, that’s how it feels. I’m sure it’s not the case, but that’s how we feel.”

The need to take every precaution to prevent infection has taken a profound toll on Ilise and Allan’s lives.

Neither has hugged their parents for nearly a year, while Zac has had to stop having sleepovers with his grandparents.

Fortunately, both Ilise and Allan’s physical health has remained stable during the pandemic – but there has been a real impact mentally.

The long period of isolation has been particularly hard for outgoing Elise.

“I miss that social interaction,” she says. “I miss hugging and seeing my friends and popping round for a brew.

“Going to the gym three or four times a week helped with our mental health, gave us something to do, but then you have that taken away from you.

“Mental health is a struggle, not just for us – I know it is for a lot of people – it’s just hard to carry on as normal.

“My son is 10 years old. We try and create that feeling that everything is fine, whereas underneath I’m paddling like crazy, but you have not got to show that.”

The arrival of a new, more infectious variant of coronavirus has also been difficult for the pair. It is now thought to account for around 40% of all new cases in Greater Manchester and is expected to soon become the dominant strain.

“We have been following the rules the whole time and we are relying on everyone else doing the same. But if you look out of the window or watch the news and it’s not working, it’s making us really anxious.

“We are relying on the vaccine to start getting back to normality – whatever that is.”

While the agonising wait for a letter or text inviting them for a jab continues, Ilise is managing to keep her spirits up.

“There are positives,” she says. “I know it sounds like doom and gloom, but it isn’t. There are so many people worse off than us.

“We get a lot of ‘pity looks’, especially when we are out and about and I’m in a wheelchair. We laugh that I’m his eyes and he’s my legs.

“We don’t want pity, we are doing just fine, thank you. We live the life we want to lead that we can lead. We are relying on this vaccine that we are hoping for, not just for us, but for my son as well, so we can get back to doing family things – going on day trips and trips to the park.

“I know we will, it’s just a case of when.”

Nick Statham, Local Democracy Reporter

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