There are still many unanswered questions to changes to shielding guidance and how it affects not only patients’ health but other parts of their lives that are relevant to their health, according to the Royal College of GPs. 

The Health and Social Care Secretary confirmed from Monday 6 July that the 2.2 million clinically extremely vulnerable people shielding from coronavirus can gather in groups of up to 6 people outdoors and form a ‘support bubble’ with another household.

From August, the government shielding support package will no longer be available and those shielding will no longer be eligible for statutory sick pay. The Government is asking employers to ease the transition for their clinically extremely vulnerable employees, ensuring that robust measures are put in place for those currently shielding to return to work when they are able to do so.

The RCGP said that the announcement to relax shielding guidance, and eventually suspend the programme, will be a great relief to many ‘shielding’ patients who have found the process difficult, particularly those for whom it has had a negative impact on their physical and mental health. But some patients will still be anxious about catching the virus and whether it is safe to start going out more, whether for work or otherwise.

Clarity needed around the working rights for those who have been advised to shield

Professor Martin Marshall, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “GPs have been at the forefront of identifying patients who have been shielding and answering their questions about the rules. We will remain the first port of call for patients concerned about their health and we anticipate many patients will approach their GP worried about how the process will change and how it will impact on them. We need to be absolutely clear about the information and advice we can give them.

“We appreciate the notice the profession has been given about these forthcoming changes. This will allow us to make necessary preparations in our practices to support our patients accordingly – and the College will be updating our resources for GPs and their teams imminently. But as GPs, who take a holistic view to delivering care, we still have many unanswered questions as changes to shielding guidance will not just affect our patients’ health but other parts of their lives that are relevant to their health.

“The College recently wrote to the Secretary of State for the Department of Work and Pensions, calling for clarity around the working rights for those who have been advised to shield. This is something our members report patients asking them about,  given that shielding patients are not necessarily sick and therefore not entitled to fit notes. It is vital that GPs and other healthcare professionals are given as much clear information as possible on such issues surrounding shielding and about the safety and practicalities of any changes to the guidance, so that we can advise appropriately and hopefully alleviate any concerns.”

No one size fits all approach for people returning to NHS work

The Royal College of Physicians said that the NHS must start considering how it can best support shielding healthcare staff. All NHS staff in priority groups should have received an individual risk assessment which employers and staff should use to make decisions about individual deployments.

Professor Donal O’Donoghue, Royal College of Physicians registrar said: “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.

“As our understanding of the virus’s transmission in the community grows, we need to ensure that local R levels are communicated regularly and timely to support individuals in their assessment of risk. There can be no one size fits all approach as factors such as travel options and work environments will vary."