Charities criticise update of shielding guidance ‘mere hours before lockdown’

Charities supporting the clinically vulnerable have accused the Government of causing “untold amounts of stress”, after new guidance on shielding was published just hours ahead of the start of a new four-week coronavirus lockdown in England.

Organisation leaders said they were “frustrated” by the last-minute updates and that many people had been left “bewildered and anxious”.

The guidance states that those who are “clinically extremely vulnerable” are strongly advised to stay at home at all times, unless they are going out for exercise or a doctor’s appointment.

They are also advised to try to stay two metres away from other people within their household, which charities say is “impractical” for those living in smaller, shared spaces.

The group includes 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 more likely to be at risk of serious illness from Covid-19.

The full new guidance was due to be published by the Government on Monday, but did not appear until Wednesday.

Fiona Loud, policy director at Kidney Care UK, said: “We are frustrated that merely days after being told by the Prime Minister that there would be no return to shielding, this change to the advice has left many bewildered and anxious.

“Patients and their families have told us throughout the pandemic that they need clear, simple and timely information which enables them to get the support they so desperately need, particularly when it comes to employment.

“Once again they feel let down.”

Edel Harris, chief executive of the learning disability charity Mencap, said adding adults who have Down’s syndrome to the shielding list could lead to “even higher levels of loneliness for people in this group”.

At a session of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Coronavirus on Tuesday charities also highlighted the importance of receiving information in a “timely” way so they can communicate it to those who need it.

Tracey Loftis, head of policy and public affairs at Versus Arthritis, said: “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.”

Concerns have also been raised about vulnerable groups that have not been included in the new list who have been left confused and stressed by the “ambiguous advice” – such as those with dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

Paul Edwards, director of clinical services at Dementia UK, said the Government had “once again done too little, too late for people to prepare”.

Laura Cockram, head of policy and campaigning at Parkinson’s UK, said: “Since the start of the Covid crisis, people with Parkinson’s have been left in the dark.

“While more susceptible to infection, they were not on the NHS shielded patients list.

“Over the past eight months, this ‘vulnerable, but not vulnerable enough’ position has led to ambiguous advice, confusion and untold amounts of stress.

“While we recognise the challenges of issuing updated advice out, to send out new guidance for clinically extremely vulnerable people with just hours to spare of a new national lockdown isn’t good enough.”

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the Government would provide more than £32 million 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.”