GPs demand clarity amid reports shielding could stop from end of July

GPs have demanded clarity after reports that patients at the highest risk from COVID-19 may no longer be required to 'shield' from the end of July.

(Photo: shapecharge/Getty Images)
(Photo: shapecharge/Getty Images)

HSJ has reported that sources 'close to the issue' have said the rules will be lifted from the end of next month because levels of the virus circulating in the community are low enough to reduce the risk patients face.

It is understood that the shielded patient list will be maintained in case there is a second wave of the pandemic and those at highest risk are required to shield again. HSJ also reported that government support for patients would end as a result of the move, although priority slots for online food shopping would be likely to remain.

Asked on Radio 4's Today programme this morning whether shielding would end, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said: 'We'll set this out very shortly, and we will write to each of the 2.2m people who are shielding because they're clinically extremely vulnerable.'

Shielded patients

The DHSC meanwhile said that no decision on the matter had been made.

A government spokesperson said: 'We’ve always said we will be looking at making life easier for those having to shield, when it is safe to do so. We are considering the next steps for the shielding programme beyond the end of June, based on the latest medical and scientific advice. No decision has yet been made and we will set out more detail shortly.'

BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: 'GP practices have undertaken a huge amount of work over the last few months to support their patients who are shielding and this continues to mean many additional consultations on a daily basis as practices try to respond to the concerns these patients and their families have.

'That's why it’s imperative that clear information is given to both patients and practices to both reduce the need for patients to contact their GP in the first place and also to provide practices with the necessary information to be able to advise patients when they do contact the practice.'
'Any changes to shielding guidance should only be made in line with falls in COVID-19 infection rates and with clear information provided by Government to patients and timely information to GP practices.'

COVID-19 pandemic

Handling of the shielded patient list and guidance for patients affected has been beset by problems since the start of the pandemic.

At the end of May the government sparked confusion when it updated advice for shielded patients saying that they could spend some time outdoors with members of their household or with one other person if they lived alone. The announcement came without any prior warning to GPs or the NHS, leaving practices fielding calls from patients who wanted more advice about what the changes meant for them.

The government said earlier this month that it intended to review guidance for shielded patients this week. However, this latest news is likely to add to confusion and comes just over a week after updated guidance on how the NHS should support shielded patients was issued to all providers. That guidance advised that care for this shielded patients should still be provided at home wherever possible, ideally virtually or online.

It also said that all shielded patients should have a named care coordinator 'to help support patient-led follow up or provide regular check ins'. It is unclear if such measures would still be required if the advice to shield is relaxed.

Assessing risk

The DHSC revealed this month that it was developing a new algorithm to establish more precisely which patients are at most risk from COVID-19. Deputy CMO for England, Dr Jenny Harries said that the algorithm would 'be helpful to the patients, in understanding their risk, but also it will be helpful to [GPs] in having those conversations [with patients] so you have the evidence at your fingertips going forward'.

Plans to adopt a 'more nuanced' risk assessment mechanism for patients at increased risk were set out in a 50-page COVID-19 recovery plan published on 11 May by the government, which set out the first steps to ease lockdown measures.

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