The Health Secretary has sowed confusion about whether those aged over 70 should be self-isolating from coronavirus or not – after appearing to muddle up the government's instructions to different groups.
Matt Hancock took to social media to claim that "the clinically vulnerable, who are advised to stay in lockdown for 12 weeks, emphatically DO NOT include all over 70s".
The statement appears to contradict government advice that over-70s should minimise contact with the outside world, as well as Mr Hancock's own prior statements.
The government's own webpage, last updated 28 April, says that "clinically vulnerable people include anyone aged 70 or over, as well as those under 70 with an underlying health condition".
In March Mr Hancock said that over-70s would be asked to "shield" themselves by self-isolating for several months, because of increased vulnerability to Covid-19 infection.
But in a string of tweets responding to an article published in the Sunday Times, he said: "We have strongly advised all over 70s to follow social distancing measures.
"However, there is no 'blanket ban', and the suggestion that the clinically vulnerable include 'people aged 70 or older regardless of medical conditions' is wrong and deeply misleading."
But twitter users appeared confused, with one commenting: "The over 70s didn’t all shut themselves away for a laugh. You told them them they were clinically vulnerable, regardless of medical condition."
Another said the comments were "blatantly not true" and pointed to screenshots from the government's website.
The confusion appears to have been partly fuelled by the fact the government has two separate but similarly named categories, each asked to follow different requirements: "clinically vulnerable" and "clinically extremely vulnerable".
Mr Hancock appears to be wrong to say that over-70s are not automatically in the "clinically vulnerable" group – they are listed as such on the government's website on a webpage updated on 1 May.
These people are being advised to "take particular care to minimise contact with others outside your household" and follow the general lockdown guidelines more stringently than others.
Other than the elderly, this group also includes with people with underlying health conditions like asthma, COPD, emphysema, heart disease, kidney disease, and diabetes. It also includes pregnant women and those who are significantly overweight, or have a weakened immune system.
However, over-70s are not automatically in the additional "clinically extremely vulnerable" category. This second group includes organ transplant recipients; people with specific cancers, severe respiratory conditions, rare diseases; those on immune suppression therapy, and some pregnant women with heart complications.
This even stricter group is being asked to follow what the government officially refers to as "shielding", which requires people not to leave their home at all for the coming months and register for help.
The Independent has contacted the Department of Health for comment on this story.
The Health Secretary was criticised last week for "massaging" figures on how many people had been tested for Covid-19 in order to meet an artificial target he had set himself.
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