How has the pandemic affected the working, social and political life for people with increased vulnerability to Covid-19? Our Covid-19 Community Reporter, Rosy Bremer talks to Ian Morris about how his life has changed, during the course of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Interview transcribed by Angela Cheverton.
Rosy Bremer: Although you are visually impaired, you were shielding for another reason. Can you tell me why that was and how you felt about not going out? Has strict isolation had any impacts on your health?
Ian Morris: I’ve got Type 2 diabetes so I wasn’t in the ‘formally required to shield’ group, but as a co-morbidity diabetes is one of the more serious conditions – should you contract the virus, it could be very serious. I was in the ‘only go out for exercise’ group. For other people, who are for example immuno-compromised, they were more severely affected than me. My view is that yes it was hard, and it’s not what we choose, but ultimately it could be much, much worse if I didn’t follow strict self-isolation.
I’ve got mild hypertension and what keeps my blood sugar in better shape is going to the gym. So I had the dilemma of if I don’t go to the gym, my diabetes is going to get worse, but if I do go to the gym I’m exposing myself to Covid. And that was the one we had the discussion about within the house, but the government took that option away from me by closing the gym down. They announced it on the Friday, when we were actually at the gym just doing our final session. I don’t think though that restricting my access has done me too much harm. I think there’s a risk-versus-reward balance to be struck, and at the point at which the R rate was high and starting to grow, it was the only option.
Can you tell me a bit about your life before the COVID pandemic? What was your working day like and how did you spend your spare time? How did things change for you during lockdown?
I’m a senior strategy manager for Guide Dogs UK. Although I’m based at home, I did travel a lot and would go all over the country. I’d get on the train with my dog and go to meet people, and they could be anywhere. I was very active in the gym, I love watching rugby, and I play blind cricket for Sussex.
The really significant change I found was just the monotony of every day. Historically, I would break my working day up when I was working from home by taking a trip to the gym or going to a cafe for lunch because the family had all headed off for the day and it was just me, my dog and the two cats. Now the dynamic’s changed in that my son’s working from home, my wife’s been furloughed and my youngest son is home from college. There’s a different dynamic now to working from home; it’s not just me, my dog and the cats now. I think the other thing is that I spent probably thirty years working in a bricks and mortar factory so the social aspect of meeting people for lunch and having a chat, that’s something that’s not so possible in my current role but I would travel most weeks. So I did get some sort of face-to-face human contact but of course now that’s been replaced by an endless stream of meetings on Microsoft Team and Zoom. I think my record is thirty six in a week.
I spend my days listening to an electronic screen reader reading out my emails, or a Word document or an Excel spreadsheet so I have to concentrate pretty hard most of the time and it makes it doubly hard when you’re in a Zoom call and you have to listen for the nuances. In some ways it has been a leveller because I have no useful vision (I can see sky and not the sky but that’s about it), so the subtleties of body language are going to pass me by unless someone’s being really obvious. It requires a lot more effort to concentrate on the voice and a video image than those more natural, face-to-face meetings that we’ve been used to.
How has the lockdown affected the services you provide for Guide Dogs’ clients and how have you managed to adapt to the lockdown restrictions?
A lot of what we do involves working closely with people, one of our great successes is the ‘My Sighted Guide’ service which allows a sighted person an opportunity to micro volunteer an hour or two a week to work with a visually impaired person, either helping them to learn routes if they are going to go on to become a guide dog owner, or simply going out with someone for a walk to the park or the cafe. It’s a really powerful service. We’ve had to suspend that service because it involves such close contact; somebody holding the elbow of a sighted person. Similarly, with our dog breeding programme, we had to stop that. We’re now developing protocols to find ways of working with a person and a new dog, within the two metre zone.
One of the things that the pandemic has done is to force us to look at things in a different way. So, we’ve set up a keep in touch phone service, for guide dog users. We’ve made about 30,000 calls over the course of the pandemic, just to check in with people and to make sure everyone’s okay.
The other thing we did, which I’m very proud of is we set up a COVID-19 information and guidance line. It was meant to be a nine month project but we set it up in nine days. In the early days it was really powerful and it was very much about helping blind and visually impaired people get access to food deliveries, which was a real struggle in the beginning of the lockdown, because although we were considered to be a vulnerable group, we weren’t in the extremely vulnerable group. We did a lot of liaising with local authorities and charity networks just to make sure people were able to access the basics of food and medicine. Now the calls are much more about social distancing, because for a visually impaired person it’s really hard to respect any kind of two metre rule when you can’t see it.
It’s also a big challenge that most of our dogs are gorgeous. I’ve got a particularly handsome golden retriever; he’s an enormous shaggy, very friendly monster weighing 46 kilos and everyone wants to come and say hello to the dog. I’ve always been very flexible on that because the funding for guide dogs comes from donations from the public, from small amounts in charity boxes and I’ve always been happy if you want to say hello to my dog, as long as I’m not actively working or trying to cross the road. But we have had instances when we should be social distancing and people have said ‘Can I come and say hello to your dog?’ The answer to that is no because you’d be in my two metres, so I’m sorry but that’s not happening.
Is there anything that you can think of that would’ve lessened the impact of self-isolation on you and those close to you?
Locally, if I look at the work done by the HIVE and so many local organisations pulling together, you can’t fault that from my perspective. I believe across the national level we’ve done the very best we could that we could do for the right reasons. However, the guarantee is that the government will have got something wrong. When we understand the virus better and the peculiarities of it then there will be time for an inquiry to learn from what went on. My statement has always been that we don’t know how well the government has done and we won’t know that until probably late next year when all the facts are known.
S&C has been awarded funding from the European Journalism Centre Covid-19 Support Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on diverse communities and sectors in Portsmouth:
- voluntary sector, including charities, community groups and social enterprises
- small businesses and self-employed people
- BAME communities
We have also been awarded funding from the Public Interest News Foundation Emergency Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on migrants, and asylum seekers and refugees.