Living with risk and worries about Covid

On this page you can read and listen to the experiences of people who contracted Covid and were later admitted to Intensive Care. It covers:

  • Early Covid infections for patients who went on to become critically ill
  • Working in essential and frontline jobs, at risk of contracting Covid
  • How people navigated their risk of Covid infection at work and home in the early months of the pandemic
  • How people lived with the risk of infection, particularly if they were vulnerable because of age, ethnicity or pre-existing health conditions

Early Covid infections of UK residents

In March 2020, little was known about the coronavirus that was to have an enormous death toll and came to dominate the news and lives of people worldwide.

Many people fell ill with Covid. A small proportion of all those who were ill, went on to become severely ill and needed to be admitted to an Intensive Care Unit (ICU); many did not survive.

Some of the people we spoke to were among those who contracted the virus in these early days whilst on holidays, at work, or when spending free time with others at home or elsewhere.

Carl contracted Covid on a skiing trip in early March 2020.

At the time, the UK government provided public health information to the general public about handwashing and symptoms, but was otherwise slow to introduce measures to curb the spread of the virus in comparison to other countries with similar infection rates. One woman we spoke to about her partner’s later infection remembered feeling powerless at the time.

Kate, who works as a midwife in the NHS, felt powerless when the UK government did not lock down.

On the 23rd of March 2020 the UK government made previous advice on ‘social distancing’ mandatory and introduced a nationwide lockdown.

Working in essential and frontline jobs and the risk of Covid

Those working jobs that came to be classed as ‘essential’ and on the frontline, including work in the education, transport and healthcare sectors, were mostly unable to keep physical distance from others. They were therefore at increased risk of infection. In the beginning, this risk was not entirely clear to everyone, or – knowing little about the virus and the effect an infection can have – they were not worried.

Elizabeth and her husband were both working in essential jobs. She felt that they had both not understood the severity of Covid yet because they were not particularly worried.

The use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other protective barriers can minimise the risk of contracting the virus. It is therefore essential for those working in essential jobs. However, in the early months of the pandemic, in the UK and elsewhere, PPE was limited. PPE shortages were a problem across all health care sectors, but particularly so for high risk environments other than the hospital, such as care homes. And so, many people working in these environments were exposed to the virus, and became ill.

Ann contracted Covid when working in a care home in April 2020.

In every sector, businesses had to make decisions about how to best protect their employees. Many of the people we interviewed continued to go to work despite worrying about their health, as they could not simply stop working. Although they did not stop worrying about the possibility that they may get infected or bring the infection home to members of their household, especially if they were deemed vulnerable.

Victor’s black cab was fitted with a Perspex guard. Although Victor was worried about contracting Covid, he continued to go to work: “The benefit of being a black cab driver, regarding Covid, is we have a partition, so like a Perspex guard. So, although you’re in the same vehicle, you’re not in the same space. But there’s just, like, a little opening and I always felt I’d have to be very, very unlucky if I contracted it. But we have a procedure where someone gets in, the passenger compartment is disinfected and so there’s only so much you can do. But I couldn’t not work through the fear of potentially getting Covid. I was aware but it didn’t…I wasn’t worried enough to stop me going to work.”

Many we spoke to who lived with others and considered themselves to be at risk of contracting and passing on Covid tried to socially distance within their house as best as they could. Donna, who works as a senior community healthcare assistant, and her husband slept in separate rooms because of the infection risk. She said: “I was scared that I was dealing with lots of clients, and I would bring home Covid, even with the PPE, so we had separate bedrooms.”

Of course, keeping a distance from one another indoors was harder for those whose homes were less spacious, or for those who had caring responsibilities that required them to be physically close to those needing care and support.

Living with the risk of contracting Covid

People varied in how worried they were about the risk Covid posed to their health and the health of those around them. While some people we spoke to grew increasingly anxious about their health, and the health of their loved ones, others were not particularly worried about falling ill. Some who went on to become critically ill initially did not believe that they could catch Covid or that it could be harmful to them.

Before he fell ill with Covid, Neil dismissed the chance that he could fall ill with the virus.

Different ideas about the risks Covid posed in families and friendship groups could result in tensions or emotional arguments. Sometimes this caused damage to longstanding relationships.

Early on in the pandemic, it became increasingly clear that people of ethnic minority backgrounds were more likely to contract, develop and die from severe Covid* (Jenny Douglas explains why here).

Dr Jenny Douglas explains why deaths appeared to be greater among people from minority ethnic and religious groups.

The differences in outcomes are explained through complex social factors, such as the higher presence of people from ethnic minority groups in public-facing jobs, and higher rates of social deprivation.

Michael, who is Black British, contracted Covid when he went back to work after a period of shielding. Reflecting back, he said: “There were news items coming out, … and statistics about people, black and Asian minority ethnic backgrounds were more at risk…. I was fully aware that if I caught it I would…the results could be fatal compared to if some other people caught it. So yes, I was aware of that, but I don’t think I was unduly worried about it.”

Michael contracted Covid when he went back to work after a period of homeworking.

In addition, it became clear that old age and underlying health conditions, such as asthma, COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or diabetes, made people more susceptible to developing severe Covid. This caused some people who have a diagnosis of one or more of such conditions to take precautions to protect their own health, or the health of those around them. People we talked to described some of the drastic measures they took to avoid all possible contact with others, both in the early months of the pandemic as well as later on.

Wendy moved into a caravan in her back garden for three months in the late spring of 2020 to minimise the risk of infection from her partner.

Living with pre-existing or underlying health conditions increases the risk of becoming critically ill with Covid. However, people without any underlying health conditions can also contract and become severely ill.

Alisha found it hard to grasp why Covid had affected her father, who had had no underlying health conditions, yet died from Covid in intensive care.

You can read about people’s experiences of having symptoms at home on our pages on ‘Managing with symptoms at home’, ‘When more than one person is ill’ and ‘When things get worse’.

*Centres for Disease Control and Prevention – Underlying Medical Conditions Associated with Higher Risk for Severe Covid-19: Information for Healthcare Providers