From 23 March 2020, the Government began contacting around 1.5 million NHS patients by letter, with guidance and information on ‘shielding’.

People that have been identified from their medical records as being at highest risk of severe illness resulting in hospitalisation if they catch coronavirus (COVID-19) have been contacted by the Government to start ‘shielding’ themselves.

The letter strongly advises people to rigorously follow the guidance, which includes staying at home at all times for at least 12 weeks.

The guidance does not require those living with the most vulnerable to also shield. It suggests limiting contact by sleeping in different bedrooms, eating apart, using separate bathrooms and strictly following social distancing guidance when outside the house.

However, Healthwatch York has already heard from two distinct groups of individuals. These are:

  • People who believe they are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus but who have not received a letter or live with someone in this situation.
  • Those who live with a vulnerable individual for whom the guidance simply isn’t possible, either due to their living arrangements or the nature of their work.

They have been able to hear from these people as part of a scheme York CVS (Healthwatch York’s parent body) is co-ordinating, working with GP practices and the new NHS Link Workers to establish a non-medical helpline for worried patients in the city.

People who believe they are vulnerable but who haven’t received a letter by now should check the government advice on who is at high risk: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-on-shielding-and-protecting-extremely-vulnerable-persons-from-covid-19/guidance-on-shielding-and-protecting-extremely-vulnerable-persons-from-covid-19.

People who meet these criteria but haven’t received a letter should contact their GP or hospital team to be added to the list.

Emily Abbott, Deputy Manager at Healthwatch York said “We heard just yesterday from an individual whose child has severe asthma. The parent’s job involves a high level of contact with members of the public. They are very afraid of bringing the virus home to their child. Having informed their employer about their concerns, and the risk to their vulnerable child, they were told they must keep coming in to work or lose their job. This call is typical of many we have taken.”

One local woman shared her experiences. “I live and work in York, in a laboratory. I have a number of health conditions, including asthma, which although well managed puts me at greater risk of respiratory problems if I contract Covid19. With my colleagues, we have raised serious concerns about our working conditions, as due to the size and layout of our workspace, social distancing isn’t possible. We have offered a range of solutions, including getting reduced pay by only completing essential work – we’re only on minimum wage so this isn’t great for us, but safety should be the first consideration. But instead of listening to our concerns and negotiating with us, we’ve faced veiled threats of “not having jobs to come back to” if we don’t “find something to get on with.” In addition, there is talk of forcing staff to use annual leave or unpaid leave. I’m scared to come to work, I feel even more stressed and afraid whilst I am here, and it feels like this company values nothing but money.”

Emma Williams from Time to Change (TTC), another project within the York CVS family stated “”It saddens me to hear the stories of people feeling forced to work in unsafe conditions and how this is negatively affecting their mental health. Checking in on the mental health of your family, friends and colleagues during the coronavirus outbreak is more important than ever and further information from TTC can be found here https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/coronavirus

Siân Balsom, Healthwatch York Manager said “We are living in unprecedented times, we’re all scrabbling to keep up with the latest developments. It’s clear that the vast majority of people want to do the right things to protect lives. This has to be our overriding concern – keeping people safe, protecting our NHS, and saving lives.

Employers have been doing amazing things to protect their staff and customers, and to make sure everyone has what they need. But this group of people are not currently being protected either nationally or locally.

We urge the Government to extend the shielding advice to cover household members where limiting contact is not possible, and employees living with those being shielded where the nature of their work prevents social distancing.

We urge all local employers to make sure they fully understand the personal circumstances of each of their employees and take a common-sense approach where continuing in their duties puts lives at risk, enabling home working wherever possible. Employers should also be aware that insisting people come to work in these circumstances could be seen as disability discrimination.”

To contact Healthwatch York:

For more information about the work of Healthwatch York, or to leave feedback about health and social care services in York please visit: www.healthwatchyork.co.uk.