When the shielding policy was announced in March, ministers said 1.5 million people would be contacted within days and asked to isolate fully for 12 weeks because of the risk that they would suffer severe illness if they contracted coronavirus.
But just 900,000 were sent letters in the first instance, meaning hundreds of thousands who should have been given prompt advice and help such as food deliveries may have been placed at risk.
GPs were then asked to validate details of anyone on the list. Around 107,000 patients who had been put on the list have now been taken off it and are being contacted by GPs to tell them they do not need to be “shielded” after all.
In recent weeks, the list has been expanded further, with GPs asked to identify hundreds of thousands more patients.
The initial Government guidance was for shielded people to stay isolated for 12 weeks, regardless of when they started. But a bulletin sent to GPs this week says anyone being contacted now should be advised to stay shielded until June 30 “subject to ongoing review”.
In total, around two million people have now been advised to shield under the programme – but many letters have only been sent out in recent weeks, adding to the confusion. Amid that chaos, letters were sent out to more than 10,000 dead patients.
GPs have been provided with template letters to contact patients incorrectly included on the vulnerable list when they should not have been classed as high risk.
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, indicated that the 12-week shielding period may be extended further, telling Sky News: “We’ve asked those being shielded to avoid as much contact as possible for 12 weeks.
“We may have to extend that 12 weeks, but we hope not to. We may not be able to release some of these measures before a vaccine is available or if we have got the number of cases right down.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “People are added and removed from the shielding list regularly based on their GP’s clinical judgement, with 2.16 million patients identified as being clinically extremely vulnerable so far.
“GPs are be best placed to advise on the needs of their individual patients during this time and, if anybody is concerned they should be included on the list, they should discuss with their GP.”