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5 November 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 11:18am

Revealed: government “advice” sent to shielders less than three hours before lockdown

Were the people most at risk from coronavirus the last to be told how to stay safe?

By Anoosh Chakelian

“New guidance” for England’s most vulnerable people was emailed out less than three hours before the national lockdown began at midnight on Wednesday 4 November.

An email, seen by the New Statesman, sent by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to a person with a chronic lung condition, who was instructed to shield in March, arrived at 9.17pm on 4 November.

With the subject line “Important advice for you about new guidance for clinically extremely vulnerable people”, and signed jointly by the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, and the Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, the email detailed “new guidance” to shielders. This guidance was published by the government on the morning of Wednesday 4 November.

This is very short notice for the 2.3 million people who are most at risk from contracting coronavirus. The New Statesman also understands that this information was only emailed to those for whom email addresses are available, so there may be vulnerable people who still have not received the information as lockdown has begun.

Indeed, the head of policy for Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation partnership, Sarah MacFadyen, told the BBC that the updated guidance – including potential furloughing to avoid going into work – had given people less than 24 hours to prepare for such changes to their lives, calling it “very late in the day”.

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The new guidance rules out a “return to the very restrictive shielding advice you may have followed earlier in the year”, but stresses precautionary measures, such as not attending work outside of the home for this period, not going to shops or pharmacies, and keeping “all contact with others to a minimum”. Children classed as clinically extremely vulnerable were told “not to attend school”.

The email is careful to stress that these measures are advisory, rather than mandatory: “This remains advice, not the law.” Shielding instructions were always advisory, but this emphasis that there is no obligation to follow the advice could also explain why the government has not renewed its earlier provision of free weekly food boxes for those who could not do their own food shopping.

[See also: Simon Heffer on how Boris Johnson blew his Churchillian moment]

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Instead, the email states:

“If you cannot access food, your local council can offer support. This may include helping you to request a priority supermarket delivery slot (if you do not already have one) or help with shopping.”

It includes details on how to access this support, with a link to register for a new online service, or to contact the council if individuals cannot register online.

Nevertheless, online shopping slots reportedly became harder to book in advance of the second lockdown in England. Asda has suspended recurring slots for those on the priority list from 19 December to 2 January because of the way Christmas bank holiday dates fall this year (the supermarket doesn’t deliver on those dates), though priority slots will continue after that period.

“We can try and book an open slot but last time it went into lockdown I couldn’t get a shop for six weeks,” a person on the government’s shielding list tells the New Statesman. “I’ve already been online to shop and can’t believe how much is out of stock due to panic-buying.”

A spokesperson for the DHSC sent the new guidance, which can be read here, and pointed out that it was published and press-released on 4 November.

[See also: Anoosh Chakelian on the £208m food box rip-off]