Covid: Should clinically vulnerable people shield amid Omicron's rapid spread?

Credit: PA
  • By ITV News Multimedia Producer Wedaeli Chibelushi

No new official guidance has been issued to those at a relatively higher risk of severe illness from Covid in England in light of the spread of Omicron.

Across the rest of the UK, those told to shield in previous lockdowns have not been asked to do so again as daily case numbers reach record highs.

This leaves many deemed "clinically extremely vulnerable" torn between following official guidelines for the general population and taking extra precautions against the virus.

ITV News asked the experts what those who are especially vulnerable to Covid can do to stay safe.

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I am relatively vulnerable to Covid. Should I start shielding?

In England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, those previously identified as clinically extremely vulnerable have not yet been asked to shield in light of Omicron's spread.

The Scottish government particularly has said it is unlikely to ask people to shield again due to the mental health impact of isolating and an increased understanding of the virus, while England's chief medical officer Chris Whitty said at a briefing last week that shielding won't be imposed "if there's any way of avoiding doing so".

UK government guidance states: "Following expert clinical advice and the successful rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine programme, people previously considered to be clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) are not being advised to shield again.

"If you were previously identified as CEV, you should continue to follow the guidance contained in this page. You should take advice from your health professional on whether additional precautions are right for you."

It is unknown whether any nation will change their shielding guidance in the coming days and weeks.

A number of health charities have said whether or not those at a higher risk from Covid voluntarily decide to shield depends on an individual's own assessments and that extra advice can be sought from health professionals.

For instance, in light of Omicron's spread, British Heart Foundation said: "You might want to consider your own level of risk from the virus - for example, whether you’ve had your booster vaccine, your age and whether you have a health condition such as a heart condition".

Shopping may currently be a source of worry for those clinically vulnerable to Covid.

If I decide to start shielding, what help will be available to me?

During the first and second coronavirus waves, supermarkets used a government list of clinically extremely vulnerable people in order to prioritise them for online shopping slots. According to the Tesco website, the supermarket continues to offer priority slots for vulnerable customers. Morrisons' Doorstep Delivery service allows customers to order groceries over the phone and pay for them when they are delivered the next day. Asda has extended its Priority Pass for elderly and vulnerable until the end of March at the earliest.

Overall, supermarkets, including Ocado, have greatly increased their online capacity since spring 2020 and it is now far easier to secure a slot.

In England, the NHS Volunteer Responders programme is still available to help support those who meet certain criteria. Volunteers can collect and deliver shopping, medication and other essential supplies and can also provide a regular friendly phone call. You can register for support by calling 0808 196 3646. There are equivalent services in the devolved administrations.

You can order your prescription online or through an app - either through the NHS directly or via a third party, such as myGP or Boots. Depending on what services your pharmacy or dispensary provide, you may be able to get your medication delivered to you (you may have to pay). Alternatively, you can ask for someone to collect a prescription on your behalf.

Clinically vulnerable people are being advised to get their booster jab, along with the general population.

What can clinically vulnerable people do to better protect themselves from Omicron's spread?

Peter Keelan from disability charity Leonard Cheshire said: ”While you don’t have to stay at home based on official guidance to date, there’s some good advice from the NHS and other sources to reduce risks.

"Having your vaccination and booster if you haven’t already is the most important step you can take to protect yourself," he added.

Earlier this month, The UK Health Security Agency said boosters are thought to give around 70% to 75% protection against symptomatic infection with Omicron.

As well as booking boosters, Mr Keelan highlighted further advice for those at a higher risk from Covid:

  • Consider meeting people outside

  • If meeting people inside, open doors and windows for ventilation

  • Consider asking friends and family to take a rapid lateral flow test before visiting you

  • Avoid crowded places

  • Wear a face covering in environments such as shops or when using public transport

  • Get your vaccines and booster

What about immunosuppressed people for whom the vaccine may not work as well?

Over half a million people in the UK do not have a fully functioning immune system because they take immunosuppressant drugs or have an immune deficiency.

Many who fall into this category have little issue with Covid vaccines, but some don't show a robust immune response to jabs.

The UK government and health experts urge immunocompromised people to get their jabs regardless, but the British Heart Foundation recognises those for whom the vaccine is less effective may feel exposed amid the spread of Omicron.

"The good news is that antibody and antiviral treatments that are now licensed for Covid-19 have been shown to be effective, and will still work even if you are immunosuppressed," the organisation said.It also suggested immunocompromised people seek help from their friends and family, for example in doing food shopping.

"Not everyone will realise that you’re immunosuppressed or that this means you’re less protected by the vaccine. If you explain, most people are helpful and understanding," it said.

Do concerned clinically vulnerable people have to attend work?

Work from home guidance is now in place again across the UK.

Your employer may decide it is not possible for you to work from home. If you feel uncomfortable doing your job in-person at the moment, the British Heart Foundation suggests attempting to negotiate with your employer.

Is it necessary for you to go to work every day? Could your hours be adjusted so you travel outside peak times, if your concern is around crowded public transport?

Regardless of whether or not negotiations are successful, an employer has a legal duty to protect workers from harm, including considering the risk to workers who are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus. 

Many employers will have measures in place to restrict the spread of Covid. If you're unsure of these measures, why not consult your manager?

You can report your employer to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) if you have concerns about safety measures, but it is advised you speak to your employer first to seek a resolution.

If you do not feel your employer is doing enough to protect you, and feel discriminated against due to your health condition/disability, then you may also be able to raise a formal grievance.