Charities have urged caution as the rules around shielding are relaxed, saying people must not be made to go back to work without proper safeguards in place.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has announced easements from July 6 for the 2.2 million people in England who are currently shielding, with shielding coming to a stop at the end of July.
Under the changes, those shielding from coronavirus can meet with people outside of their household outdoors in groups of six – as long as social distancing is maintained – from Monday July 6.
People who are shielding and live alone, or are single parents with children, will also be able to create a “support bubble” with one other household of any size, in line with rules already in place for the wider population.
Food packages will stop at the end of July, while statutory sick pay will also stop for the shielded unless they fall sick or need to self-isolate because they have been in contact with somebody with coronavirus.
Those who need to work and cannot do so from home will also be able to return to work, as long as their workplace is “Covid-secure”.
Mr Hancock said the shielding programme was being “paused” but could be reinstated if the clinical guidance changed.
“I use the word ‘pause’ very deliberately because the (shielding) list will continue and should the clinical advice be that we need to bring it back in, then that is what we will do,” he told the daily No 10 press briefing.
England’s deputy chief medical officer for England, Dr Jenny Harries, said a much lower infection rate was driving the changes, with around one in 1,700 people in England currently infected with Covid-19.
She said that while “we can never say 100%” that people would not meet the virus when they go out, now was the time for “perspective and proportionality”.
While some shielded people would feel anxious about the changes, “it won’t help if people are too frightened to go out”, she said.
“It is the epidemiology that is driving the programme – it is whether you are likely to meet, if you like, the virus when you head out,” she said.
“We can never say absolutely 100% none of us will meet this virus at the moment – that’s not possible.
“But we can say that the levels are now so low. So as the Secretary of State said, the data at the week before last was that on average for people in our communities you would have to meet 1,700 people before you came across a case of infection.
“So it is trying to get that perspective and proportionality into people’s understanding.”
Dr Harries said there were some children who were staying home from school because they are shielding who would would be better off in the classroom.
“There is almost certainly a large number – a very large number – of children who are not going to school at the moment who could go, because parents are concerned that they should be shielding,” she said.
“Those children are at very, very low risk from Covid, they are probably at very, very significant risk of getting left behind in their education.
“In terms of the long-term health outcomes, that would be far worse.”
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) has issued new guidance for medics on which children will continue to need to shield and who can safely return to school, she added.
Charities said the move to end shielding would be welcomed by many but warned that people must not be forced back into offices and onto public transport.
Nick Moberly, chief executive of the MS Society, said people “are desperate to get back to normal life” but added: “We are gravely concerned that certain key support measures – such as food packages and Statutory Sick Pay – will be taken away prematurely.
“Without this help, and with many people still terrified of infection, for some the idea of normal life returning will feel more like a threat than an opportunity.
“Additionally, those who now may have no choice but to return to work must be given the right information so that – together with their employer – they can ensure their working environment is safe.”
Alison Cook, director of external affairs at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said: “Most people will have a choice about what they are going to do, but for people who aren’t able to work from home that may not be the case.
“It is vital that before anyone in the extremely clinically vulnerable group goes back to work that employers can clearly demonstrate how they are going to be able to keep people safe, whether that’s through socially distancing or providing protective equipment.”
Lynda Thomas, chief executive at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “For those facing a return to work, the Government needs to make sure there are no gaps in the support available.
“No-one should be forced to choose between protecting their health and making ends meet.
“The Government must ensure employers are meeting their legal obligations to support people to return to work safely and those who are unable to work safely should be able to continue to access support from the Government’s job retention scheme, whether they have been furloughed before or not.”
In other developments:
– Around four in 10 young people who say coronavirus has affected their wellbeing believe the lockdown has made their mental health worse, according to new analysis from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
– Wales could implement its first local lockdown following a coronavirus outbreak at a chicken processing plant, the First Minister has said.
– A coronavirus contact tracing app abandoned by the Government had so far cost the taxpayer nearly £12 million, Lord Bethell told the House of Lords.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce plans for the hospitality sector to reopen from July 4 and whether the two-metre social distancing rule in England can be relaxed.
He spent Monday afternoon discussing the proposed changes with the Covid-19 strategy committee, attended by chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty.
But Dr Zeshan Qureshi, lead author of a report on social distancing for Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme there was still scientific uncertainty around relaxing the two-metre rule.