Coronavirus: Shielding measures in England to be lifted in August

Greater freedoms for clinically vulnerable people to leave their homes and meet others from 6 July

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Monday 22 June 2020 15:37
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Coronavirus in numbers

Charities have warned that some medically vulnerable people could be forced to choose between financial security and their health, after Matt Hancock announced that “shielding” measures which have confined 2.2 million inside their homes for the past three months are to be lifted in England at the start of August.

In the latest in a series of significant relaxations of lockdown, the health secretary said that from 6 July people shielding from the coronavirus will be able to gather in groups of up to six people at a two-metre distance outdoors, while those living alone will be allowed to form a “support bubble” with another household, visiting one another as often as they like and staying overnight.

And from the end of next month, clinically vulnerable people will no longer be advised to shield and will be able to visit shops and places of worship and return to their workplace if they cannot do their job at home, but will be advised to stick to social distancing rules.

But at the same time, they will no longer be entitled from 1 August to claim £95-a-week statutory sick pay and may be forced instead to claim universal credit or other benefits if they are unable to go back to work because of health fears.

People with conditions including some cancers and respiratory diseases, as well as transplant recipients and some pregnant women, were told to remain at home and avoid face-to-face contact from 21 March, although the guidance was later eased to allow meeting one person from another household outdoors.

Age UK said the new relaxation would be “manna from heaven” for elderly people who have been isolated from their families, but the charity demanded clarity from the government on the rights of older employees who fear it may not be safe for them to go back to work.

And the chief executive of Blood Cancer UK, Gemma Peters, warned that the blanket lifting of shielding will add to anxieties for many vulnerable people.

“This announcement does not give people greater freedom, as the shielding guidelines have only ever been optional,” said Ms Peters. “Instead, it risks taking away people’s freedom not to go to work or to the supermarket if they do not feel it’s safe to do so. The government needs to think again and continue to support those most vulnerable to becoming seriously ill from the coronavirus, or we could see people being forced to choose between their financial security and their health.”

Nick Moberly, chief executive of the MS Society, said that people who have been shielding are “desperate to get back to normal life”. But he said he was “gravely concerned” that key support measures such as food packages and statutory sick pay might be taken away prematurely.

“Without this help, and with many people still terrified of infection, for some the idea of normal life returning will feel more like a threat than an opportunity,” he warned.

“The government must keep support in place for as long as possible so people can transition towards normal life safely. Additionally, those who now may have no choice but to return to work must be given the right information so that – together with their employer – they can ensure their working environment is safe.”

More than 3 million free boxes of essential food and 1 million free medicine packs have been delivered to people stuck in their homes, while more than 500,000 NHS volunteers have provided help including telephone calls to support individuals at risk of loneliness as a result of self-isolation.

Enhanced support will remain available from NHS volunteers and local councils, and individuals will retain priority for supermarket delivery slots and continue to be offered help with shopping, medication, phone calls and transport to medical appointments.

And new guidance will be issued encouraging anyone concerned that their workplace may not be Covid-secure to speak with their employer to agree a plan for returning to work and adjustments that may be needed before they go back.

Mr Hancock said that the changes were possible because the rates of infection have fallen to an average of less than 1 person out of 1,700 with the virus outside hospitals, compared with 1 in 500 four weeks ago.

He said: “I know this has been incredibly tough.

“Shielding has involved not leaving your house for months, not seeing people you care about, not being able to wander to the park for some fresh air, or even pop to the shops for something you need. This sacrifice has been for a purpose, and I want to thank every single one of you.

“We knew it was a difficult ask, but these measures have been vital in saving lives. Now, with infection rates continuing to fall in our communities, our medical experts have advised that we can now ease some of these measures, while keeping people safe.”

The deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, said that shielding has had an impact on the mental health of many of those affected.

“The prevalence of the virus in the community is now lower and chances of getting infected are reduced, so we believe it is the right time to relax some of the advice so people can start to regain a degree of normality once more in their daily lives,” she said.

“People should continue to follow social distancing guidance when outside their homes, as well as frequently washing their hands, to minimise the risk of becoming infected. We will continue to monitor the evidence closely and adjust the advice accordingly if there are any changes in the rates of infection that could impact on this group.”

Speaking at the daily Downing Street press conference, Dr Harries warned that Britons should not regard the increasing relaxation of lockdown as an indication that life can go back to how it was before the pandemic.

“There is a critical point here that says just because life is feeling a bit more back to normal don’t suddenly jump to where you were this time last year,” she said. ”We need to learn to go forward with restrictions in our lives.”

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said: “The fact there’s now a roadmap out of lockdown for those who are shielding will be manna from heaven for many older people who we know were worried they were being forgotten as the nation starts to get back to some kind of normal life.

“The changes announced for July are modest and, while a welcome easing of the existing rules, will still require grandparents to choose which family with which to form a support bubble, unless they only have one child – not at all easy for many I’m sure.”

The government will now write to all individuals on the Shielded Patient List with updated information on shielding advice and the ongoing support that will be available to them.

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