Thousands of vulnerable Britons at high risk from coronavirus have not yet been told they should be staying indoors for 12 weeks, it has emerged.
With the peak of the virus thought to be several days away, officials have admitted that there have been “mixed messages” about which people should be “shielding”.
Vulnerable people may have been inadvertently putting themselves at higher risk because they are unaware that they should be staying home.
Last month the government announced that it would contact 1.5 million people to tell them that they should be shielding. GPs were then asked to find out more information on other patients they were aware of who needed to follow similar advice.
But in some cases, GPs have been unable to add people to the existing list of those who are entitled to receive food deliveries and urgent supplies during their 12-week isolation.
A letter from deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries – who has been alongside ministers in daily press conferences from Downing Street – and Dr Nikki Kanani, NHS England’s primary care director, admitted there had been “mixed messages”, telling doctors to “disregard” previous advice as fresh attempts were to be made to identify those at risk.
Alison Thomas, whose 95-year-old mother Else Catchpole is blind, deaf, takes medication for heart failure and suffers bouts of breathlessness, criticised the delays and said people were being left at risk.
Ms Catchpole, who lives in Cambridge, relies on her daughter for care eight hours a day and is unable to leave the house or even prepare her own food and drink.
“I went on the government website and it said she does not fit the criteria. I went to her GP and asked him to add her. He called me and said he totally agreed with me and said he had a long list of people but they had been told they weren’t allowed to add anyone and to wait,” said Ms Thomas.
She worries she could bring the virus into her mother’s house and fears what could happen if she becomes sick herself. She said: “I am angry and frustrated. It seems completely chaotic. I think there could be millions who have been missed.”
A GP in the northwest told The Independent: “We are being told to wait until the centralised lists have been done then we will be told when we can do our searches and add people. Apparently there has been some problems with the coding used for searches and also the wording in the letter sent out. We’re getting lots of patients asking why they haven’t received their shielding letter yet. And some asking why they have received one.”
The government introduced the shielding policy on 21 March for 1.5m people thought to be “extremely clinically vulnerable” to the virus.
Asked about the issue at the daily No 10 press conference, chief medical officer Chris Whitty said there were around 16 million people who were aged over 70 and have pre-existing health conditions who he said should be following government advice on isolation.
He added: “There is this particularly vulnerable group, around 1.5 million … who we are very keen to have the absolute minimum contact possible for quite a long period of time.”
He said most had been contacted or would be as a second wave of letters was sent out this week. “There will be people who go in to the shielding programme who were not initially identified,” he said.
In their letter to GPs sent last Friday, Dr Harries and Dr Kanani said: “We know that there have been mixed messages about this patient group.”
They said most patients at highest risk had been identified and written to, but added: “This week we expect more people to be identified as we are validating the centrally held list against general practice data. People identified through this process will be sent a letter in the post and these will also be flagged in your GP system.”
GPs were asked to identify patients they believed should be included, but the letter said: “We are aware that there have been other sources of guidance asking you to identify and contact large numbers of extra patients. We ask you to disregard this.”
The letter said details of patients who had self-identified as vulnerable would be sent to GPs this week, adding: “We ask that you review this list and consider if any of them should be included in the highest clinical risk group. Please send a letter to any you consider to be at highest clinical risk and add a flag to their record.”
Hospital specialists are also working to identify patients they consider to be at risk.
Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “A priority for GPs is to ensure our most vulnerable patients are kept as safe as possible during the pandemic and official advice is that ‘shielding’ is the best way to do this.
“If a patient thinks they meet the criteria to be in the highest risk group and should be shielding but hasn’t received notification, or adversely, if someone has been told they should ‘shield’ but don’t think they meet the criteria, they should contact their GP or hospital specialist.”