Cancer, transplant and asthma patients axed from shielding list by text message

Kate Proctor and Rajeev Syal
Photograph: Terry Vine/Getty

People with cancer, liver disease or severe asthma have been dropped from the UK government’s coronavirus shielding list by text message before their doctors have been able to speak to them.

The decision to remove people with various health conditions from the shielding programme has caused upset. The text also informed people they would no longer qualify for government food parcels.

Many who received the messages last Friday believed they were fake. But the government has since confirmed the texts are correct and are official government communications.

Certain patients who have had a liver transplant, are on immunosuppressant medication, or have decompensated cirrhosis have also received texts. People with brittle asthma and those with other types of cancer were also told they were no longer getting additional help from the National Shielding Service.

Louisa Fenton, 24, a care assistant, who has had brittle asthma since childhood, said getting the message on Friday had caused her extreme distress, as she thought her condition put her at risk of a severe case of coronavirus if she became infected.

“This has made me feel awful. Throughout lockdown I’ve been living on my own and I’ve been relying on the food boxes. Now a doctor has decided I’m not on the shielding list. But I think I need to be put back on it. Coronavirus attacks the lungs – how can they tell me not to stay at home? I feel like a guinea pig in some kind of experiment,” she said.

Kizzy Gardiner, who is standing in for the Labour MP Stella Creasy, who is on maternity leave, said: “No one who has been told by the government to shield should find out that is no longer the case by text message. The fact that these messages went out before GPs or consultants were made aware of them has created a huge amount of confusion and concern among the most vulnerable people, who have been diligently following the guidelines to shield.

“Vulnerable people are now left with unanswered questions and a huge lack of clarity on where to find answers. Should they have been shielding in the first place? What has suddenly changed that means it’s safe for them to go out?”

It is not known how many people have received the messages and the government did not respond to the Guardian’s question on this. 

MPs and the British Liver Trust have complained to the Department of Health and Social Care.

Emails show department officials also thought the text was a hoax, but they later confirmed the message was correct.

Vanessa Hebditch, from the British Liver Trust, said: “The government has said that individual doctors can use their clinical judgment and take people off the shielding list. I’ve had assurance from the Department of Health and Social Care that nobody should have received a text as the first piece of communication. Their consultant should have written to them or rung them. 

“Some people who have received this message haven’t had those conversations, so clearly this was a blip. Our advice, if you do receive a text, is to continue to shield until you have received direct advice from your own clinician.”

The text sent from GOVUK said: “This is an update from the National Shielding Service. We understand that your GP or hospital clinician has recommended that you no longer need to follow government advice to shield.

“If you are receiving food deliveries via the National Shielding Service these will be stopped. This will not affect your eligibility for a supermarket priority delivery slot or any slots you already have in place.”

NHS England wrote to doctors more than six weeks ago, on 10 April, requesting that they review their lists of shielded people for accuracy.

A government spokesperson said: “The government is committed to supporting the clinically extremely vulnerable and all decisions about whether someone should shield are clinically led.

“In some cases health experts have advised that a patient no longer needs to shield themselves from coronavirus. Where this is the case, the person will be informed that they are not on the shielded patient list.

“Those advised that they no longer need to shield may still access forms of support including the NHS Volunteers network, and will retain their supermarket priority delivery slots.”

The government confirmed it had asked clinicians to review the records of people to ensure that only those who needed to shield were on the shielded patient list, and said that doctors should have written to explain the decisions that had been made. The text was supposed to confirm that support would end and direct patients to other forms of help.