Doctors' leaders have demanded urgent clarification from the government over its plans to ease shielding rules for patients at high risk from COVID-19, after reports that shielding could stop from the end of July.
Guidance issued in March as the government imposed lockdown to restrict the spread of coronavirus says at-risk patients were being advised 'to shield until 30 June 2020'.
With less than two weeks to go until that date, the government said this week it would set out 'very shortly' how shielding rules could change.
However, GPs have warned that patients are already contacting practices to ask how they will be affected by changes to the rules. Close to one in 10 patients in some areas are on shielding lists - and GPs have warned that they need advance notice and clear guidance to be able to support people in this group.
RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall said: 'GPs have been at the forefront of identifying patients who have been shielding and answering their questions about the programme.
'We anticipate that thousands of patients will approach their GPs worried about how the process will change and how it will impact on them, so it is vital that we are given as much clear information as possible, about both the safety and practicalities of any changes, so that we can advise appropriately and hopefully alleviate any concerns.'
GPs have faced a litany of problems with shielding since the programme was set up. Earlier this month shielding rules were relaxed to allow at-risk patients to go outdoors with 'no warning' for primary care.
In April, a senior NHS England official apologised and admitted the process had been 'really frustrating' after problems including patients being missed out or incorrectly identified for shielding, and changes to guidance on who should be included.
The RCGP has also raised concerns about the impact of sudden changes to shielding rules on patients' working rights.
In a letter to the department of work and pensions this week, the college warned that it was unclear how patients currently shielding and unable to work from home 'will be able to financially support themselves and their families' if shielding rules were dropped.
The RCGP letter said: 'As you will be aware the Treasury’s furlough scheme covers patients that are shielding who are unable to work from home.
'As the scheme begins to be withdrawn, there will be a significant proportion of patients who will not to be able to physically return to work, in line with government advice, and yet will not be issued with a fit note or qualify for statutory sick pay.'
College chair Professor Marshall added that the uncertainty was 'posing difficulties for patients who as a result are asking their GPs for support in completing bureaucratic processes'.
He wrote: 'For example, several GPs have reported they are receiving questions about statutory sick pay, employment protection and other areas in which they would not be expected to have the detailed knowledge required to help their patients.
'It would therefore be helpful if additional guidance be provided to employers, employees and primary care to offer clarity.'