Removing the shield: Matt Forde steps outside for the first time in ten weeks
“My legs were like jelly, I was like Bambi,” says comedian Matt Forde, of his first experience leaving his flat in ten weeks, “very quickly they became tight and a bit sore but I didn’t care, I went out for two and a half hours.”
His eyes were buzzing at their new natural surroundings: “I couldn’t control my eyes; they were drawn to every flower and every branch. I was just staring at things.”
Forde, who has a severe form of asthma, is one of more than two million people who shielded during the UK coronavirus lockdown. Shielding is advised to protect people who are clinically at high-risk from the virus.
When Boris Johnson announced the UK would go into lockdown in March, Forde says he followed the “stay at home” instruction to the letter. And then, on the first day of summer, people who had been shielding in England were permitted take their first steps outdoors.
When Forde – who lives in north London – left his home for the first time since March, he expected “the world should look how it did” before the virus took over.
“It’s as if everything should have paused,” he explains.
But instead he walked outside into a new, warmer season.
“My local park was muddy and soggy the last time I’d seen it, now the grass is golden and the soil dry.
“It’s not that I didn’t value or notice these things before, but I didn’t experience them so vividly. The smells were so strong.
“It’s like I’ve woken up out of a coma and the world has moved on. But what a wonderful thing to have experienced, I’ll never forget it.”
Forde says he always knew he had asthma but did not realise it was severe until recently. He says the two types of medication he is on had placed him in the severe category. “In the last few years I’ve had a string of serious chest infections and although I don’t need to cart around an oxygen tank or anything, I’m aware of my vulnerability,” he explains.
“I shielded the moment it was announced until the day we were allowed out, so it was over ten weeks. I followed the advice to the letter and didn’t go outside at all.”
He lives in a flat with no outdoor space other than shared communal gardens, which he has been “gazing at” during lockdown but did not enter.
“I’m so pleased I can now go and enjoy them whilst remaining alert and vigilant,” Forde says. “I had no idea I’d spend this much of the year cooped up inside, but it was a very clear choice for me: the inconvenience of staying in versus the risk of catching a virus that could kill me. I’m still hyper alert, I only walk once a day, I cross the road to avoid people.”
While the UK Government updated its advice for England, allowing the shielded group to leave their homes, in Scotland the advice is that people in vulnerable groups should continue to shield until 31 July. From 18 June, Scots shielding will be allowed to “go outdoors to exercise while maintaining strict physical distancing”.
A recent Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation survey of 1,146 Scots living with lung disease found that of those shieldng, 36 per cent were concerned for their mental health should the shielding period be extended.
Asked whether the lockdown had impacted his mental health, Forde says: “It wasn’t too bad for me but I’m very lucky that I don’t have children to home school, I don’t have noisy or aggressive neighbours, I don’t have a disability, I’ve been able to work and I live with my girlfriend..”
“Lots of people have been through hell, for me it was just a surreal inconvenience.
“That said, I was starting to think about going outside more. When I go out for my daily walk now, I’m going out early so there are very few people around and I keep my distance from anyone I see. If I felt it was too risky, I wouldn’t be doing it.”
Forde says he missed the feeling of walking on grass.
“I’ve always loved grass; I think because when I grew up we only had a concrete yard, so grass has always felt like a real treat.
“When I’ve been walking in the park, I’ve avoided using the concrete path and have been enjoying the soft carpet of grass underneath my feet. Before lockdown I’d been walking a lot and I missed that. It’s so good for the mind to be out and be moving.”
Looking ahead, the first indication of life getting back to normal for him will be: “When we can safely go to pubs again. That’s when I think there’ll be a real bounce in the national mood.”
Forde, who rescheduled his stand-up tour in March, was due to head to Edinburgh for his annual fringe shows in August, and he’s “absolutely gutted” about the festival’s cancellation.
“Edinburgh is one of my favourite places on earth and I’ve been coming up every year for over a decade so I’ve spent so much of my life there,” he says. “I adore it, not just because it’s a place where so many of my hopes and dreams have been born and realised but because it is a uniquely magical place. There’s no other city in the world quite like it.”
Has the comedian come up with any new material out of the lockdown?
“Of course. I’ll get plenty of material out of it, particularly the political mistakes. I’m working on my Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak impressions too...I just don’t know when I’ll be able to perform them!”