Shielding chaos as official letters contradict doctors’ advice

Vulnerable patients across England have been told by their doctors they must continue shielding, despite letters from the Government telling them they can now go outside.

Concerns have been raised that thousands of vulnerable patients may have been told to stop shielding immediately by the National Shielding Service, against the advice of their own medical professionals.

Letters received across England this week tell patients: “We understand that your GP or hospital specialist has reviewed your medical record and has advised you are no longer considered to be at the highest risk of severe illness from coronavirus. This letter is to confirm, in line with this, that the Government is no longer recommending you follow shielding advice.”

But concerned patients who contacted their GPs or consultants to confirm the advice were told to continue shielding, as they were still considered high-risk.

One doctor told his patient the letter was “bloody ridiculous” and advised they stayed at home until September. Their medical records had not changed at all since the start of lockdown, he said.

The Department of Health refused to disclose how many letters had been sent out by the National Shielding Service, but acknowledged that GPs, not central government, were best placed to decide whether patients’ shielding should continue.

The department advised patients to contact their GPs if they were concerned an error had been made. “We understand how challenging this pandemic is for people, especially those with long term conditions and rare diseases, and we must do everything we can to support patients,” a spokesman said.

But patients pointed out the letters said their own doctors had already been consulted, so they would not have known to check separately to see whether they should continue shielding.

One woman was preparing to go back to work after receiving the letter when she was advised by another patient to check with her GP to see if the advice was accurate. Her doctor told her she should not go back to work, and should remain indoors and isolated.

Nicola Hutchinson, 48, is shielding at home with her daughter Erin, 18. Both have cancer, and Erin received the letter just after finishing a round of chemotherapy, telling her she no longer had to shield.

Ms Hutchinson checked with her daughter’s consultant, who advised that she should remain shielding for at least two more months.

The Government’s own guidance says patients undergoing active chemotherapy are at a high risk of developing complications from coronavirus. “I belong to two [online] shielding groups, so that’s 6,000 people I’m in touch with, and a lot of people are getting these letters,” Ms Hutchinson said.

“It makes me so angry because there are people out there who are on that list who might not have the mental capacity to check, or think they need to check, because they’re trusting what they are being told. “If you get a letter saying your doctor or consultant says you can come off the list, you kind of trust that. “It clearly states in the letter it’s the doctors doing it, but they’re not being asked.”

The change in advice means that the shielding patients are no longer eligible for Government food parcels or medicine deliveries. Ray Ramsay, 76, is shielding at home with prostate cancer that has spread to his lungs.

He received the letter from the National Shielding Service and checked the advice with his doctors, who told him to keep shielding and not to leave the house. “This letter was sent out needlessly, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

“Everyone was prepared to stay shielded until the end of July, and then this letter comes, which throws the whole thing out. You’re either shielded or you’re not.”

The Department of Health did not respond to questions about how the process for consulting doctors worked, and would not explain how the errors have been made. It is unknown how many patients have been wrongly told they can now leave their homes.

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