The UK’s 2.2 million people with health conditions most vulnerable to Covid will not be required to undergo strict stay-at-home “shielding” this winter, new government guidance has stated.
In a big shift from advice earlier in the pandemic, those with cancer, respiratory or other serious illness will be told to maintain their distance from others and meet socially outdoors if possible but they will not have to effectively quarantine themselves.
A return to home isolation practice will only apply if the spread of the virus becomes exceptionally bad in specific “high risk” areas of the country, and even then for a short period of time rather than months as previously.
The new advice, issued by deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries, is a “softer” approach to the harder measures seen at the height of the coronavirus outbreak and reflects confidence that mask-wearing and the “rule of six” limiting social contact are having an impact.
The decision follows concerns that many of those most at risk “overinterpreted” the guidance in March and April, taking it as an instruction or requirement rather than guidance.
Many of those involved didn’t leave home for many months until the system was paused on August 1 and some felt “imprisoned”, which was never the intention of the guidance, insiders said.
The government wants to ensure that those shielding, many of whom are elderly, are not left feeling socially isolated and that they continue to access vital healthcare appointments with GPs and hospitals.
The guidance will be tied into the new Local Covid Alert Levels framework, meaning those at the highest risk of serious illness from the virus will receive specific advice depending on the level of risk in their local area, as coronavirus rates continue to rise.
The “clinically extremely vulnerable” group includes those with conditions affecting the immune system, certain cancers and organ transplant recipients, amongst others.
A return to a formal shielding programme will only occur in very specific circumstances, at the request of chief medical officer Chris Whitty and only for a very short period of time for a tightly defined group of people.
It may even be specific areas within a “high risk” area in local lockdown, rather than the whole region, and personalised letters would be sent to those involved.
Shielding advice will not automatically be triggered by an area going into Local Covid Alert Level: Very High, but will be considered as an additional intervention, agreed by ministers under advice from local public health experts and the chief medical officer.
Almost all people in the extremely vulnerable category, who will remain on a register and who will be sent personal letters of any changes in advice, left “shielding” requirements last week.
Many can now travel and go to work in Covid-secure workplaces, the government believes, and evidence has shown that Covid-vulnerable young children in particular can go to school with little risk.
Harries said: “Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a sharp increase in the prevalence of the virus across the country and we know those who are clinically extremely vulnerable are looking for practical advice on how they can carry on their lives while the virus remains in our communities.
“The new system will provide clarity on how best those in this group can keep themselves as safe as possible depending on the rates of transmission in their local area. Whilst advisory, I would urge all those affected to follow the guidance wherever they can and to continue to access health services for their medical conditions.
“We will continue to monitor the evidence closely and fine-tune this approach to make sure everyone in this group is clear about the safest way to go about their daily lives, particularly over the coming winter months.”
Health secretary Matt Hancock said: “Today’s announcement will mean every person most at risk from serious outcomes from the virus will have specific advice targeted to local levels, which they can follow to keep themselves as safe as possible, while ensuring they can also keep as much normality in their lives as possible.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.