New guidance has been issued for 2.3 million ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ people – two days later than expected and just hours before the start of a four week lockdown in England.
People in this group are strongly advised to stay at home at all times, unless they are going out for exercise or a doctor’s appointment.
This means they should stay at home for work, school, college or university, even though educational facilities can remain open during the second national lockdown, which comes into force from midnight.
Health charities have hit out at the Government for issuing the new advice with such short notice, leaving little time to prepare and causing ‘confusion and worry’ among many people.
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Tough new guidance from the Department of Health comes weeks after saying it would not insist on a return of shielding and would issue ‘soft advice’ instead.
In March those at risk were told to stay indoors at all times, unless they have a garden or balcony, even for exercise. Shielding was always advisory and was not enforceable by law.
Clinically extremely vulnerable people include those with reduced immune systems, specific cancers or severe respiratory conditions such as cystic fibrosis.
People with chronic kidney disease (stage 5) and those undergoing dialysis, as well as adults with Down’s syndrome, are being added to the shielding patient list by the NHS due to new evidence about groups at serious risk due to coronavirus.
Those in the clinically extremely vulnerable group are strongly advised not to go to any shops or to pharmacies.
They are also advised to try to stay two metres away from other people within their household.
Full new guidance was due to be published by the Government on Monday, but did not appear until Wednesday.
At a session of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Coronavirus on Tuesday, charities highlighted the importance of receiving information in a ‘timely’ way so they can communicate it to those who need it.
After today’s advice was released, head of policy and public affairs at Versus Arthritis Tracey Loftis said: ‘Following the end of shielding in July, Versus Arthritis called on the Government for clear communication around shielding going forward.
‘We are concerned that guidance to people who are clinically extremely vulnerable from Covid-19 has been published mere hours before England enters into a second lockdown. This will cause confusion and worry amongst many communities.
‘Receiving information in advance is vital to helping charities to translate the guidance into language that can help and empower vulnerable people.
‘Without advance notice, people do not have time to plan and adapt their lives for the new rules. This can affect jobs and caring responsibilities, leaving people feeling isolated and confused.’
Dementia UK director of clinical services Paul Edwards said releasing guidance for the clinically extremely vulnerable on the eve of the second lockdown ‘means the Government has once again done too little, too late for people to prepare’.
He added: ‘By not including people with dementia in the classification, they have again left families affected by dementia in the dark, with no clear guidance and no access to support services trying to reach the clinically extremely vulnerable.’
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the Government will provide more than £32million to upper-tier councils in England to support the clinically extremely vulnerable over the next month.
Deputy chief medical officer for England Dr Jenny Harries said: ‘With the prevalence of the virus continuing to increase across England and in places across the world, it’s right that we adjust our advice for the clinically extremely vulnerable accordingly so they can feel as safe as possible over the coming few weeks.
‘Our guidance for this group of individuals has always been advisory, but I would strongly urge all those who are clinically extremely vulnerable to take these extra precautions to keep themselves as safe as possible.’
Head of policy at the MS Society Phillip Anderson said the second lockdown has left thousands of vulnerable people feeling ‘extremely anxious and fearful once again’.
He added: ‘Despite waiting days for new guidance, they have only been told to expect support locally for the next four weeks – leaving them in the dark on how they will be protected once the England lockdown ends.
‘The Government must give clinically extremely vulnerable people urgent reassurance that, come December, if they are working in high-risk areas and can’t work from home, they will be given financial support.’
Edel Harris, chief executive of the learning disability charity Mencap, said adding adults with Down’s syndrome to the shielding list could lead to ‘even higher levels of loneliness for people in this group’.
Blood Cancer UK chief executive Gemma Peters expressed concerns that the guidance for people who are vulnerable to keep two metres away from others in their household may be impractical for those living in a small flat.
She added: ‘This is another example of government guidance being much more difficult to follow if you are less well-off, and the Government should give specific advice and, if necessary, support, to people who can’t socially distance from the people they live with.’
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