Shielding relaxed from early next month and will end on 1 August

Shielding rules will be relaxed from 6 July to allow 2.2m patients at high risk from COVID-19 to gather in groups and form a support bubble - with shielding set to end completely from 1 August.

Deputy CMO Dr Jenny Harries (Photo: Julian Simmonds/WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Deputy CMO Dr Jenny Harries (Photo: Julian Simmonds/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

From 6 July patients on shielding lists will be allowed to 'spend time outdoors in a group of up to six people' - including people from outside their household - while maintaining social distancing, the government has confirmed.

Shielding patients who live alone or who are single parents with children will also be permitted to form a 'support bubble' with another household - in line with rules already in place for people not on shielding lists.

From Saturday 1 August, high-risk patients will no longer be asked to shield - although the government has said that some support measures for patients in this group will continue.

COVID-19 shielding

Confirmation that shielding rules are set to be wound down comes after GPonline reported last week that the rules were set to change imminently - as the Northern Ireland government confirmed it would scrap shielding after 31 July.

Support for patients currently on shielding lists from NHS volunteers and local councils will 'remain available' after the end of July the government has said, along with priority booking for supermarket deliveries and help including transport to medical appointments.

People on shielding lists who are unable to work from home will be told they can return to work from 1 August 'as long as their workplace is COVID-secure'. The RCGP warned earlier this month that uncertainty over plans to ease shielding restrictions had already led to GPs receiving phone calls from patients asking for advice - and has predicted an avalanche of calls to come for practices.

RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall last week demanded urgent clarification from the government over how patients currently on shielding lists, who cannot work at home but are unable to go back to work safely after shielding ends, would be able to support themselves financially.

Sick pay

The college said that patients were asking GPs 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'.

The government said shielding rules were being relaxed because 'rates of the virus are now low enough to allow for our advice to be carefully and safely eased'. It said that on average across UK regions, less than one in 1,700 people were now thought to be infected - compared with one in 500 on 25 May.

Deputy CMO Dr Jenny Harries said: 'Shielding was introduced to safeguard those who, at the start of the epidemic in the UK, were thought to be most clinically vulnerable in our communities.

'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.

Social distancing

'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.'

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock thanked patients who had been shielding. He said: '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.'

During the Downing Street press briefing on Monday, Mr Hancock confirmed that the government would keep the shielded patient list in case patients were required to shield again in the future.

Also speaking at the briefing, Dr Harries revealed that a new risk assessment research methodology was being developed by Oxford University that would enable a 'much more individualised way' for patients and their doctors to be able to understand a person's risk.

'In the future, therefore, those we advise to take action may be a slightly different group to those who shielded through this disease peak,' Dr Harries said.

The government has said it will write to all patients on shielding lists by 30 June to explain the changes.

The decision to ease shielding rules comes after the government announced last week that it had lowered the UK coronavirus alert level from four to three - meaning that the virus remains in circulation but that transmission is no longer 'high or rising exponentially'.

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