Standing up for those who are shielding: An update

Posted on June 9th 2020

Earlier this month, we wrote to Miriam Cates, MP for the constituency in which the PHA UK is based. We asked how, as restrictions start to lift, the Government is going to ensure that those still shielding are recognised within the strategy to ending UK lockdown. You can read our letter here.

Today, 9th June 2020, we received the reply below. We will now be writing to Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Communities, to continue the conversation.

Dear Dr Armstrong,

Re: Support for the Clinically Extremely Vulnerable

Thank you for your letter and for raising your concerns about how people who are ‘shielding’ will be protected and supported as we emerge from ‘lockdown’. Thank you also for the vital work that you and the Pulmonary Hypertension Association do to support PH patients and their families and to raise awareness of the condition.

This has been an incredibly difficult time for those living with PH and other conditions that make them clinically extremely vulnerable to COVID-19. As you rightly say, people who have been ‘shielding’ now for three months have made an enormous sacrifice to protect themselves and our NHS.

I am glad that the Government has provided unprecedented support to shielding people with well over a million food parcels now delivered. And it has also been heartening to see how our local community across Penistone and Stocksbridge, and the whole of the UK, have come together to provide voluntary help to people who are self-isolating.

However, this practical support in no way makes up for the hardship, loneliness and uncertain ty that is being experienced by those who are cli nically extremely vulnerable. There are 2.2 million people who are ‘shielding’, most of whom have not seen friends and family for three months, have barely been outside and whose freedoms have been greatly restricted. For those of working age, it may be some considerable time before they can return to the workplace and this in itself adds financial pressures to an already difficult situation.

Despite these hardships, I know from my own family members who are shielding how seriously the guidance to stay at home is being follow ed by those told to ‘shield’ and I and are whole community are immensely grateful for this sacrifice.

I’m sorry that you feel that there is a danger of PH  patients and other clinically extremely vulnerable people being forgotten as we start to unwind the lockdown measures. I can assure you that this is not the case and that the Government is doing everything it can to support shielding people, to gather evidence around how new guidance will affect them and to suppress coronavirus so that the risks to the clinically vulnerable continue to decrease. I have had close contact with a number of Government departments during the pandemic and I know that strategy around how to care for the clinically extremely vulnerable has been top of the agenda throughout.

I’m very sorry if this recognition and concern have not been properly communicated. I have written to the Secretary of State for Communities, Robert Jenrick to bring your concerns to his attention and to ask that the Government makes sure that there is clear and regular communication around the strategy for the ‘shielded’ group as we emerge from lockdown.

You will have seen that the guidance for clinically extremely vulnerable people has recently been updated to allow people in this group to spend  time outdoors and, for those living alone, to meet one other person from outside their household. This is a small step but I hope an important one with some physical and emotional benefits.

Sadly, though we all want to reach the point where clinically extremely vulnerable people can return to normal life, we are not yet at that stage. The risks of catching coronavirus are decreasing all the time, and the latest data suggests that only 0.24% of the population is currently infected. For those without medical conditions, this presents a very small risk but it is unfortunately the case that, without a vaccine or a cure, the risks to those in the shielded groups do remain high.

Much consideration is being given to how clinically extremely vulnerable people may gradually be able to come out of ‘lockdown’ as levels of the virus continue to decrease. But the most important breakthrough would be to develop an effective vaccine that can be given to patients to confer immunity. This is why we are putting enormous effort and resources into producing a vaccine because we know it may be the best hope for people who are shielding.

The Government recently announced £84 million of new funding to help to accelerate work by Oxford University and Imperial College on finding a vaccine, taking the total investment for these institutions to just over £130 million. There has already been great progress, with clinical trials in humans underway at the University of Oxford and human trials due to begin at Imperial College, London  later this month. We have also announced a further £93 million to accelerate the building of the new Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre so it can open in summer 2021, a year ahead of schedule.

In total , the UK has now committed over a quarter of a billion pounds to support finding and manufacturing a vaccine in the UK. In addit ion to domestic efforts, the Government has committed £250m to the Coalition for Epidemic preparedness Innovations to support the global efforts to develop a COVID-1 9 vaccine. Whilst there can be no guarantee that a vaccine will be found, we are doing everything we can to develop one precisely because it may be the only way to protect the clinically extremely vulnerable in the long term and to allow people to return to the activities that make life worth living.

Miriam Cates MP

Member of Parliament for Penistone and Stocksbridge