England's 2.2 million shielders to be allowed 'support bubbles' and to meet outdoors in groups of six, Hancock announces

  • Video report by ITV News Health Correspondent Emily Morgan

Those shielding from coronavirus in England will be allowed to meet other people outdoors in groups of up to six from July 6, the health secretary has announced.

Shielders who live alone or are single parents with children will also be able to create a "support bubble" with one other household of any size - the same rule is already in place for the wider population.

The government's shielding support package - which delivers food and medicine - will remain in place during this period to give people "time to adjust" to the changes.

England's 2.2 million shielders - those considered "clinically extremely vulnerable" to Covid-19 - must follow this guidance until the end of July, after which people will no longer be asked to shield.

From August 1 the advice will be relaxed but shielders will "retain their priority for supermarket delivery slots, and still be able to access help with shopping, medication, phone calls and transport to medical appointments".

Support will also remain available from NHS volunteers and local councils.

Those who need to work and cannot do so from home will be advised to return to work from August 1, so long as their workplace is Covid-secure.

Children who are clinically extremely vulnerable will be able return to their education settings from this point if they are eligible.

From this date food and medicine boxes being delivered through the National Shielding Service will stop as shielders will be advised they can visit shops and pharmacies.

The changes have been made following the reduction of the UK's Covid-19 alert level from four to three.

Shielders are still advised to follow strict social distancing measures and should continue to frequently wash their hands.

England's Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries said health experts will "continue to monitor the evidence" around coronavirus transmission and will "adjust the advice accordingly" if worrying trends emerge.

England's Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he wanted to "thank all those who have been shielding", acknowledging how the period will have 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," he said.

"This sacrifice has been for a purpose, and I want to thank every single one of you."

  • ITV News Health Correspondent Emily Morgan on why many are still concerned about the change in guidelines

Shielders are still advised to "remain at home as much as possible", despite the evidence showing on average less than 1 in 1,700 in our communities are estimated to have the virus - down from 1 in 500 four weeks ago.

The government says shielding advice will only be "paused" at the start of August, rather than stopped entirely, because ministers anticipate introducing local shielding advice if there are local flare-ups of the virus.

But Dr Harries says new risk assessment research methodology, which is being published on Monday, could mean that in future, a "slightly different group" may be advised to shield.

"One group where this is particularly relevant is for children," she said.

She said hospital admissions for under-18s with coronavirus is "very low indeed" and "only 36 children within the UK have been admitted to intensive care".

said there were children who were staying home from school because they are shielding who would would be better off in the classroom.

“There is almost certainly a large number – a very large number – of children who are not going to school at the moment who could go, because parents are concerned that they should be shielding,” Dr Harries said.

  • What are the changes to the government's shielding guidelines?

England’s deputy chief medical officer told the Downing Street press conference that children with asthma which is under control should be in school.

“Those children are at very, very low risk from Covid, they are probably at very, very significant risk of getting left behind in their education.

“In terms of the long-term health outcomes, that would be far worse.”

Those shielding will be allowed more time outdoors from July 6, but they must still follow social distancing guidelines. Credit: AP

The government says it recognises the anxiety felt by many shielders about their return to work and has ordered employers to ensure "robust measures are put in place" to protect them from risk.

In a further bid to reassure shielders, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said "we will continue to deliver the unprecedented package of support including food and medicine deliveries until the end of July".

Mr Jenrick said the government will be writing to everyone on the Shielded Patient List with updated information on shielding advice and the ongoing support available to them.

But many are still concerned - Kate Osborn, who is a secondary school teacher, told ITV News she is "very" worried and fears she could die.

"It sounds dramatic, but if I was going to work, going out and about, I think I would catch it and I would die."

She said: "The idea that we'll go from in our homes, not having any contact, not even people in our gardens - you're the first human in my garden - to being with people who are used to it, there's no transition.

"People have had four months to get to where they are now, we haven't had any of those transitions so it's a big worry, we don't even know how to socially distance."

Some shielding children have been able to enjoy shared theraplay sessions, but many have not had the privilege. Credit: PA

Sophie Clarke is shielding due to cystic fibrosis and a double lung transplant, putting her in the 'extremely vulnerable' category.

The 25-year-old is very wary about any stopping of the shielding advice but is cautiously pleased that advice for shielders will be relaxed.

She said: "If I want to see these particular friends, it's worth seeing them because I want to say happy, really."

When asked whether she would choose them carefully she said: "I will pick them very carefully, if I know that they've been going to town or seeing lots of people, I will be a bit hesitant about seeing them.

She adds that she feels totally abandoned by government and trusts her hospital guidance over the announcements.

From early in the crisis those considered clinically vulnerable have been advised to "shield" themselves from the virus by avoid all non-essential contact with people from outside their household.

“We knew it was a difficult ask, but these measures have been vital in saving lives," Mr Hancock said.

"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.”