Lockdown curbs for coronavirus 'shielding' group to be eased from July, Matt Hancock confirms
Matt Hancock has announced the new measures for those who have been asked to shield
Restrictions for people in the coronavirus 'shielding' group are set to be eased from early July, Matt Hancock has confirmed.
The Health Secretary said that falling infection rates in the community meant it was now safe to relax some restrictions for the 2.2m people in England deemed "clinically extremely vulnerable" from 6 July with further easing to come in August.
The group, which includes cancer patients, organ transplant recipients and those with serious lung diseases, had been asked to take extra steps to protect themselves during the pandemic, including remaining in their homes at all times.
But Mr Hancock said the group would be given the green light to take part in some of the lockdown easing measures which have already been announced, including the ability to meet up in groups of up to six people outdoors or forming 'support bubbles' with other households from early July.
And from August 1, the group will no longer be asked to shield, meaning they can visit shops and places of worship as well as returning to work if they are unable to work from home.
Ministers said that during July the group would still be eligible for food parcels and medications to be delivered as they "adjust" to the new measures.
Meanwhile, they will still be given priority supermarket delivery slots and able to access help with shopping, medications and transport to medical appointments after the scheme is relaxed further in August.
Announcing the measures, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: "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."
He added: "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."
But Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries said it was still important for the group to remain at home as much as possible, including taking extra precautions to avoid contact with those outside their own households.
"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," she said. "We know how difficult this period has been and the impact shielding has had on many people’s mental health."
"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.
She added: "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."
Meanwhile, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said those in the shielding group would receive further information about the support they could receive as the guidance is relaxed.
"I also want to reassure everyone that we will continue to deliver the unprecedented package of support including food and medicine deliveries until the end of July," he said.
"You will be sent information that will explain what support is available after that, you will not be on your own."
He added: "I want to thank councils, health and care professionals, the food industry, key workers and volunteers for their staggering effort to deliver a programme on a scale not seen since the Second World War.
"Your combined efforts have supported millions of people during this difficult time."
Responding to the announcement, Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the move would be welcomed by those shielding but urged ministers to exercise "eternal vigilance" to avoid a second spike.
"These gentle relaxations will be welcomed by the over two million individuals in England whose lives have been severely restricted in recent months," he said.
"Shielding has not been without risk to these people’s physical and mental health. But it will be important for them and everyone else that they continue to exercise caution, and that the whole country continues to observe the recommended social distancing, face mask wearing, and other measures to protect this population as shielding restrictions ease."
He added: "It will also be critical to ensure the rapid strengthening of the Test and Trace service, which is our frontline defence against the virus.
"The risk of a second surge is not over and we have seen elsewhere that the virus can return.
"So, while we understand and support measures to move back to a more normal existence, the watchwords for now must be eternal vigilance. The shielded population may be out of their homes but they are not out of the woods."