More than two million people trapped at home under the Government’s ‘shielding’ scheme to protect them from coronavirus will finally be allowed back outside and to reunite with loved ones from July 6.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said levels of the virus in the UK are now so low that it will soon be safe for vulnerable people to start returning to normality – there is now thought to be approximately one infected person in every 1,700 people.
The 2.2million ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ people in England will be allowed to meet up with small groups outdoors in two weeks’ time.
They will be afforded similar freedoms to the general public for the first time since the Government told them to stay at home at all costs from March 29.
But they should continue to avoid public indoors places like shops and places of worship until August 1, when shielding will be lifted completely.
Cancer patients, people with serious lung conditions, those whose immune systems don’t work properly and pregnant women with heart disease are included among the shielded patients.
For people who have been shielding but don’t feel safe going back into society, the Government will continue to offer support beyond the end of July – they will still be eligible for help from NHS volunteers or for priority supermarket delivery slots.
Mr Hancock acknowledged the policy had been ‘incredibly tough’ for many but said ‘this sacrifice has been for a purpose’.
Doctors said patients would receive the announcement with ‘mixed emotions’ after months of anxiety and may have trouble trusting that it is safe to go back outside.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have separate rules which will relax at different rates – Scottish First Minister said it will continue there until at least the end of July.
Today’s announcement comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to lay out tomorrow looser lockdown rules for the general public, with the beginning of July likely bringing a reduction to the 2metre social distancing rule, and the prospect of households being able to join in bubbles for people to sleep over and have physical contact.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock today announced that shielding would come to an end on July 6, admitting it had been ‘incredibly tough’ for the 2.2million people advised to do it
The Department of Health said today that people will be able to go outside as much as they want while maintaining social distancing, from July 6.
They will be able to meet up with others in groups of up to six, as long as they stay outdoors and maintain social distancing – currently 2m (6’6″) from others.
They will also be allowed to stop social distancing from people within their own homes, which they had been advised to do.
WHEN AND HOW ARE THE SHIELDING RULES CHANGING?
Shielding rules in England currently urge people who are ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ to stay at home as much as possible, with the exception of medical appointments and exercise.
This is how and when the rules are changing:
From July 6 people in the shielding group will be allowed to socialise in small groups of up to six, provided they maintain social distancing (2m or 6’6″) and stay outside. This is the same socialising rule that currently applies to the rest of the public.
Shielding people who live alone will be allowed to form a social ‘bubble’ with one other household, with whom they will not have to social distance and where they can sleep overnight or vice versa.
People who are shielding no longer need to observe social distancing with the people they live with, which they had been advised to do.
From August 1 people in the shielding group will not have extraordinary guidelines in place but will be advised to spend as much time at home as possible.
They will be allowed to return to work, to go shopping, and to go to places of worship, as long as they can maintain social distancing.
And shielding people will also be allowed to join the ‘bubble’ rule if they live alone or are a single parent, in which they can join with another household to act as if they live together.
Shielding rules will then come to an end completely on August 1, the Department of Health announced, but people will still be offered support with shopping and medical appointments if they want it.
From that date, vulnerable people will be allowed to return to work if they want to, to go out shopping, and to visit places of worship – but they will still be urged to stay home as much as possible.
Officials still want people who are shielding to spend as much time at home as they can, but the urgency of the guidance is being taken down a notch.
Doctors are concerned, however, that seriously-ill people won’t feel safe returning to the same level of normality as the rest of the country.
Professor Donal O’Donoghue, from the Royal College of Physicians, said: ‘Today’s announcement will be met with mixed emotions by many.
‘The past few weeks and months have been challenging and we know that many patients will be unsure about what lies ahead.
‘It is crucial that the government builds trust by regularly communicating and engaging with those who have been shielding up to now.
‘Patients are likely to have many questions and we need to ensure that frontline NHS staff are equipped with the detailed scientific evidence base to be able to support patients to make their shared decisions based on individual assessments of risk and their personal priorities.’
The Government is loosening its shielding rules in light of tumbling numbers of new cases of the coronavirus and daily deaths now in the dozens rather than hundreds.
Britain today announced 15 more Covid-19 deaths in the lowest daily toll since 10 days before lockdown was introduced.
And official statistics show just 958 more cases of the disease were diagnosed, in the lowest 24-hour jump since Boris Johnson imposed the draconian restrictions to halt the outbreak on March 23 (967).
Scotland has now recorded zero deaths on six occasions in June, including no victims for the last two days. While Northern Ireland has had no deaths on 11 separate days, with three in a row up to today. The East of England also added no victims to their count today.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said today: ‘I want to thank all those who have been shielding for so many weeks for their commitment to the shielding programme.
‘I know this has been incredibly tough. Shielding has involved not leaving your house for months, not seeing people you care about, not being able to wander to the park for some fresh air, or even pop to the shops for something you need.
‘This sacrifice has been for a purpose, and I want to thank every single one of you.
‘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.’
From August 1 people who are shielding will be allowed the same freedoms as other people and will be able to go shopping or to pubs and cafes when they reopen (Pictured: A couple enjoying the sun in London)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to loosen lockdown rules further tomorrow and reduce the 2metre (6’6″) social distancing rule to allow people into closer contact with one another (Pictured: People on Brighton beach today)
Charities echoed the view of the Royal College of Physicians and said people are likely to be afraid of returning to normal.
Macmillan Cancer Support’s chief executive, Lynda Thomas, said: ‘We know that for lots of people who have been isolating this will be welcomed news, as they may have been separated from loved ones for a long time.
WHAT IS SHIELDING AND WHO WAS TOLD TO DO IT?
Shielding is the highest level of isolating that people were advised to do at the peak of the UK’s coronavirus crisis.
It was recommended for people considered ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ to Covid-19 because they have a serious illness or disability.
People who are shielding should stay in their homes and gardens at all times, unless it is an emergency, and have food and other supplies delivered to their door.
The advice has now relaxed a bit and people who are shielding can go out in public for exercise, for example, but should maintain strict social distancing and not get close to anyone from outside of their household.
Help offered to people shielding includes free food boxes delivered to their home, if requested; help from volunteers with attending medical appointments and collecting prescriptions; and
The shielding group includes these people:
- Organ transplant patients
- Cancer patients
- Lung disease patients (i.e. COPD, severe asthma or cystic fibrosis)
- People with rare conditions that raise the risk of infection, such as sickle cell disease
- People taking immunosuppressant medication that weakens their immune system
- Pregnant women who have heart disease
- Anyone else whose doctor has told them they are in the category based on an individual assessment.
‘However, others may be feeling incredibly anxious about what’s to come and the news that shielding measures are easing may be bitter sweet for many in this extremely clinically vulnerable group.
‘They will want to be confident that they can go out and spend time with small groups safely, without risking their health.’
British Heart Foundation director of policy, John Maingay, added: ‘Lockdown has been an incredibly challenging time for people with serious heart and circulatory conditions who have been shielding from Covid-19 and may have gone months without going outside, or seeing close family or friends.
‘While some will benefit mentally and physically from the end to shielding, it may also cause concern for people with serious heart and circulatory diseases due to their increased risk of developing complications from the virus.’
There are concerns that people might come under pressure to return to work and that statutory sick pay will come to an end when people are able to go back to work.
The MS Society – a charity representing people with multiple sclerosis – said: ‘We are gravely concerned that certain key support measures – such as food packages and Statutory Sick Pay – will be taken away prematurely.
‘Without this help, and with many people still terrified of infection, for some the idea of normal life returning will feel more like a threat than an opportunity.’
Muscular Dystrophy UK added: ‘Many people living with muscle-wasting conditions will welcome this development – but for some it will not be appropriate.
‘We’ve heard from some people who say they do not feel ready to stop shielding. It’s essential they are not forced out of it because they can’t access food and medicines, or because their employer demands they return to work when they do not feel it is safe to do so.’
Boris Johnson prepares to cut two-metre rule and unveil plans tomorrow for holidays, pubs and hugs for grandparents to return for the summer
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is preparing to announce a dramatic easing of lockdown this week, with a meeting of the Cabinet to rubber-stamp it tomorrow.
The PM is expected to announce an expansion of social ‘bubbles’ where people are allowed to mix freely, as he moves England into a new phase of coronavirus recovery.
WHAT LOCKDOWN CHANGES WILL THE PRIME MINISTER ANNOUNCE TOMORROW?
Boris Johnson is widely expected to announce a raft of easements to the lockdown restrictions tomorrow.
They would come into effect from July 4 – in less than a fortnight.
They are believed to include:
- Two-metre rule relaxed to ‘one metre plus’;
- Expansion of support ‘bubbles’ to allow two households where both have more than one person in them to mingle indoors;
- Pubs, bars and restaurants reopen;
- Barbers and hairdressers are able to reopen;
The changes will be unveiled along with a reduction in the two-metre social distancing rule, which businesses insist is crucial to breathe new life back into the tanking economy.
But there are big questions over how the new system will work, amid claims that just two households might be allowed to form ‘bubbles’. That could leave families forced to make agonising choices between sets of grandparents, friends and relatives.
Downing Street has warned that Mr Johnson will not hesitate to put the ‘handbrake’ on again if infections start to surge – amid worrying signs that Germany is experiencing another flare-up.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock this evening said the Government was being ‘guided by the science’ in easing the lockdown restrictions.
Dr Jenny Harries said even as the rules were relaxed people still needed to follow social distancing, including regular handwashing and good respiratory hygiene.
‘There is a critical point here that says just because life is feeling a bit more back to normal don’t suddenly jump to where you were this time last year. We need to learn to go forward with restrictions in our lives,’ she told the No 10 briefing.
She said that the consensus among members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies was that the R number remained below one.
‘The advice that is given is already coming from a consensus of scientists. They give that advice and the politicians act on that advice. The consensus as of last week was that our R remains between 0.7 and 0.9,’ she said.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland is allowing six people to meet indoors from tomorrow, after a slump in the number of cases suggested lockdown can be unwound faster there.
Current guidelines in England allow for groups of up to six to meet in the open air, while staying over two metres apart.
Only those living together, or who have chosen to expand their ‘support bubble’ to include another person who lives alone, can touch or be closer than two metres.
Mr Johnson has been meeting his closest ministers, advisers, and medical and science chiefs to thrash out the new arrangements today. They will then be signed off by Cabinet tomorrow before the premier unveils them in the House of Commons.
According to The Telegraph, two potential options are on the table.
One would involve two household being able to form a bubble, with no limit on the total numbers inside it. That would potentially mean only one set of grandparents.
Another possibility could be to allow households to merge, but impose a ceiling on the number of people. However, that could be regarded as unfair by larger families, who would be more severely constrained in expanding their group.
A senior government source said: ‘There will be an expansion of social bubbles, but the details are still being finalised.’
Another government source told The Telegraph: ‘The question with bubbles has always been how you help families reunite to the maximum possible extent without too much risk.
‘The scientists’ main concern has always been infections spreading from one household to another, which is why this is one of the more difficult decisions we have to take.’
Ministers hope the announcement tomorrow will mark another step towards normalising the country, with pubs and restaurants due to reopen from July 4.
But they are also at pains to stress that the crisis is not over by any means.
Security minister James Brokenshire said a sharp increase in the R virus reproduction rate in Germany showed the dangers.
‘It is concerning to see the situation in Germany and it’s why we are informed in our actions by experience from around the world, why the chief scientific officer, the chief medical officer, speak to their counterparts in different parts of the world to ensure that we are applying the best learning and the best experience in informing our next steps,’ he said.