Vulnerable people shielding from coronavirus may be allowed more freedoms over the coming weeks, the health secretary has indicated.
Matt Hancock said an announcement on shielding will be made "very soon" following reports that it is to be axed at the end of July.
It comes as non-essential shops in England opened for the first time since March this week, following a continued relaxing of lockdown restrictions.
What are the current rules for vulnerable people?
Those who are shielding are currently told they can leave home if they wish, as long as they are able to maintain strict social distancing.
They should only go out with members of their own household, although those who live alone can spend time outdoors with one person from another household, ideally the same person each time.
Millions of people regarded as vulnerable were sent text alerts at the start of lockdown, advising them to remain indoors at all times.
What has the health secretary said?
Responding to reports in the Health Service Journal that shielding would be lifted at the end of July, Hancock told BBC Breakfast: "I want to say to your viewers, if you are in the shielded category we will announce very soon what the plans are and we will write to you personally through the NHS so that you can get the direct clinical advice.”
He said those who have been shielding indoors have "sacrificed an awful lot" but added: "We want to do this properly based on the clinical advice.”
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick will publish details soon, Hancock said, and the changes will be "based entirely on the clinical evidence of what it is safe for you to do”.
"But the good news,” he added, “is that, because the virus is coming right under control in this country – only 4,500 new infections a day, far, far lower than at the peak – it means it is much safer to do more things than during the peak and we'll be setting that out in detail.”
Asked on BBC Radio 4's Today programme whether he could confirm that shielding would finish at the end of July, Hancock said the government would "set this out very shortly" and write to those involved.
How have charities reacted?
Age UK said any loosening of the restrictions would be "very good news” as long as any move was “fully justified by the current level of risk”.
Charity director Caroline Abrahams warned that recent changes in guidance caused “confusion and some scepticism”.
She said: "Looking further ahead, if the shielding scheme is to be wound down from the end of July, to be replaced by a more individualised approach, it will be really important to ensure that older people are not left high and dry if support is withdrawn before they can take a full part in our society again.”
Blood Cancer UK said it would be "extremely concerned" about any plans to end shielding at the end of July.
Chief executive Gemma Peters said: "We are worried that if the government withdraws support for people who are shielding, it will put many people with blood cancer in a position where they feel forced to go back to work but don't feel safe to do so.
"There is a real danger that people will face a choice between financial security and their health, and this would be unacceptable.”
Nick Moberly, chief executive of the MS Society, said: "For the millions of people who have been shielding – including thousands living with MS – a blanket lifting of the guidance now will leave them feeling even more frightened and anxious.
"We urgently need clarity around the guidance – including clear scientific evidence – so people can return to some sort of normal life safely.”
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