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Scientists have hit out at the government’s refusal to enforce shielding rules for the most vulnerable as COVID cases continue to rise.
Advice published last week stated that the more than two million people who shielded during the peak of the pandemic do not yet need to shield again – despite what tier their area is in.
But the move triggered a backlash among experts and some charities, which said vulnerable people may feel forced to go to work.
Dr Stephen Griffin, associate professor in the school of medicine, University of Leeds, described recent numbers, which showed the highest daily figure for cases, as a “worrying trend”.
He said: “Critically, I am aghast that shielding remains paused. Whilst it saddens me to see that this is once again our only recourse to protect those most vulnerable to COVID, they must be enabled both socially and financially to protect themselves once more.
“Whatever transpires as a result of policy, it must be accompanied by a return to the commitments made earlier this year. Most importantly, testing must be overhauled.”
His comments come after deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam expressed concern for the rate of change in infections among the over-60s across the nation.
He said at a press conference on Tuesday: “I really want to emphasise that it is the over-60s that really worries us most because these are the people who become severely ill with COVID-19, they are more likely to be admitted to hospital, if they are admitted to hospital they stay in hospital for longer and sadly they are more difficult to save.”
Watch: Hundreds of thousands ‘could be told to shield’
Dr Griffin hit out at the government’s testing programme, and said there was “no evidence” that the tier system for local lockdowns worked in bringing down numbers.
Arguing for tougher restrictions, Dr Griffin said: “It is difficult to understand why urgent action is not being taken on a national level, as advised by Sage, independent Sage and many other observers.
“This is a UK wide problem. If we wait for other areas to reach prevalence as we are seeing in the north of England then the situation will be grim indeed.”
He added: “The pain of the previous lockdown has been squandered, the summer has been wasted. The commitment to suppressing cases and organising effective testing was not met.”
Oxford University scientists this week shared a model that identifies the most at-risk people from the disease.
Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh University, said the research showed that shielding just 5% of those people could reduce deaths by as much as 75%.
The government have said that rather than force vulnerable people to stay at home – risking feelings of isolation and fearful of leaving the home at all – they would instead be sent a letter setting out the precautions they should take.
All those who shielded previously are already helped by wider protection measures not previously in place when shielding was originally introduced, such as the rule of six and face coverings, the government said.
Deputy chief medical officer for England Dr Jenny Harries said: “The new system will provide clarity on how best those in this group can keep themselves as safe as possible depending on the rates of transmission in their local area.”
But Dr David Strain, senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter, said the suggestion no extra measures are needed “flies in the face of… announcements by both the chief and deputy chief medical officers”.
He added: “The most significant conclusion that can be drawn from the announcement is that there is a reluctance to support the physical and mental health of the clinically vulnerable.”
Shielding, which was paused at the end of July, aimed to protect those at greatest risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19.
Clinically extremely vulnerable people include those who have had an organ transplant, people with cancer who are undergoing active chemotherapy and those with lung cancer undergoing radical radiotherapy.
People with cancers of the blood or bone marrow such as leukaemia, lymphoma or myeloma are also included, as are those with cancer who are having immunotherapy or other targeted treatments.
Other conditions included are severe respiratory illnesses including all cystic fibrosis, severe asthma and severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Watch: Can you catch coronavirus twice?