The lack of preparation by the UK government for the coronavirus pandemic can be shown in no starker light than the current scramble to create ‘shielding groups’ – lists of highly vulnerable people whose immune systems have been destroyed in order to treat their illnesses.
These people are particularly at risk to viruses and disease and have been told not to leave home under any circumstances for the next twelve weeks.
- 1.5million ‘extra high risk’ people in the UK.
- Government has no collated database of these vulnerable people.
- Tens of thousands of people highly susceptible to covid-19 could be missing from the records.
- Lists are being created now with the government calling on GPs to help.
- Anyone in shielding groups told not to leave home for 12 weeks under any circumstances.
What are “shielding groups”
A ‘shielding group’ is a list of people that due to the medical treatment they are currently under are highly vulnerable to infectious diseases. This could be because they are on chemotherapy drugs or have had organ transplants and their immune systems have been destroyed in order for the body to accept the new organ.
GPs are currently being tasked to help scramble ‘shielding lists’ together. I spoke to Dr Alistair Bell, a GP based at a health centre outside of Preston, who explained to me more about what the shielding groups are, and the pressure being put on GPs to decide who can and cannot be shielded.
Full transcript of conversation
Dr Bell: Amongst us doctors we are talking about shielding groups. Have you heard of this?
Harry Jamshidian: No. What is it?
Dr Bell: Right now a big issue in GP-ing is these shielding groups. So obviously everyone can catch the virus but certain people are more vulnerable so should follow particularly stringent social distancing measures. For example if you have asthma or if you are diabetic. But the next step up from this is ‘shielding groups’ which is about 1.5million people in the UK who are particularly vulnerable because they are on chemotherapy drugs or they have had an organ transplant and are on horrible drugs that get rid of your immune system. These people are shielded and they are supposed to not leave their homes for 12 weeks, plain and simple.
Now, these people want a shielding letter which they can show to an employer or so they can get absolute priority in supermarket delivery service for example. But because the government has not prepared for this, there is no list, believe it or not, of the 1.5million high risk people in the UK. There has never been a single collated database of all the UK vulnerable people. They are building these databases from scratch right now.
HJ: How are they doing this?
Dr Bell: They obviously have ways of doing it electronically and a consultant cancer doctor knows who his patients are.
HJ: Could they miss out on people?
Dr Bell: Well they have missed out on people. Maybe in the order of tens of thousands. And because the government has admitted there is no list we (GPs) have the power to add people at our discretion.
HJ: Have you shielded anyone?
Dr Bell: Yes, two people.
HJ: So because the government hasn’t kept any information on these extra vulnerable people, GPs are having to fill in the data now?
Dr Bell: Yes. I get people phoning up saying ‘I should be shielded, I have not got a letter’, so we are allowed to make a letter saying they are part of the shielded group, but what we get is a lot of people who think they should be shielded when they really should not.
HJ: Have you had to refuse people who wanted to be shielded?
Dr Bell: Yes. Just the other day I had someone saying I am on the inhaler dose that makes me count as severe and I had to say to the patient you are on that dose because you choose to be and I do not know if that really counts. People phone up and say they have asthma but it’s not severe asthma. The problem I have is working out how to define severe asthma because the guidelines are woolly. In a lot of cases the issue is an underlying health problem that is bringing on severe symptoms. For example anxiety or obesity problems. But these ailments are not considered the criteria for someone to be shielded.
HJ: It’s a lot of responsibility to put on individual GPs. It must be hard to decide.
Dr Bell: It’s tricky. We get these arguments from time to time. I have to try explain to patients that they cannot be shielded.
Dr Alistair Bell is a general practitioner at Worden Medical Centre, Preston. He completed his medical degree at Dundee University in 2012 and became a fully qualified GP in 2018.