New rules will apply to 3.8million of the most vulnerable people in England as shielding ends tomorrow.
People with severe conditions will once again be told they can go to the shops and to work, and meet up to five other people people outdoors in line with the national roadmap.
It is a breakthrough for many after a long three months of shutting themselves away. By now, all shielders should have been offered a first dose of the vaccine, and in some cases a second.
But given the lockdown rules that still apply to the whole country anyway – with pubs and non-essential shops shut – there’s unlikely to be a “big bang” moment tomorrow morning.
Many shielders are still nervous, given the government has repeatedly said restrictions would end only to bring them back again during a surge.
And there could be fresh reason to worry as many support schemes come to an end, with sick pay for shielders ending tonight and priority supermarket deliveries finishing in June.
Louise Rubin of disability charity Scope said: “As shielding lifts, only 8.5% of clinically extremely vulnerable people have received their second vaccine dose.
“Many disabled people will be filled with anxiety, as what little support remains for shielders could now be removed completely.
“Disabled people need a support package to protect their finances and livelihoods as we move out of lockdown, through the roadmap and look to the future.”
So what changes are happening tomorrow? Here are the rules explained.
What were the shielding rules up until now?
More than 3.79 million people in England deemed clinically extremely vulnerable have been asked to shut themselves away for months.
People were told they could still go outside for exercise or to attend health appointments.
But they were told to “try to keep all contact with others outside of your household to a minimum, and avoid busy areas.”
That included not going to the shops, and not going to work, even if you couldn’t work from home.
Shielders could still meet with their support bubble but not anyone else, unless it was a case of meeting one other person in the park for exercise.
What are the new shielding rules?
From April 1, shielders can follow the same rules as everyone else in England.
As of now, that means being able to meet up with up to one other household or five other people (whichever is greater) in any outdoor space. Outdoor sports are also allowed.
Shielders can return to work, or to school if they are children.
However, a letter to shielders has warned they must “keep the number of social interactions that you have low” and “try to reduce the amount of time you spend in settings where you are unable to maintain social distancing”.
“When you are allowed to meet others indoors, keep the area well ventilated with fresh air, for example by opening the window,” the guidance says.
Shielders should “consider how you get to and from work”, such as avoiding the rush hour. The letter also reminds shielders that all workers should still work from home if possible.
Who was shielding?
Shielding applied to anyone deemed “clinically extremely vulnerable” by the government.
This was originally just over 2million people in England but expanded to 3.79million in February with the help of a computer algorithm which looked at combinations of low-level risk factors.
Anyone told to shield should have been sent a letter directly by the government.
What if I don’t feel safe going to work?
The guidance says clearly: “If you cannot work from home, you should go to work.”
And there appears to be no legal power for shielders to refuse to go to work on safety grounds.
However, the letter to shielders advises them to raise any safety concerns with their union, local council or the Health and Safety Executive.
Employers are obliged to “take steps to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19” – from one-way systems and ventilation to regular testing.
“Where employers are not managing the risk of COVID-19, HSE and local authorities will take action which can range from the provision of specific advice, issuing enforcement notices, stopping certain work practices until they are made safe and, where businesses fail to comply with enforcement notices, this could lead to prosecution,” the letter says.
Can I still get sick pay?
No – unless you are eligible for another reason other than shielding.
The letter to shielders says: “From 1 April you will no longer be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) or Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) on the basis of being advised to shield.
“You may be eligible for SSP or ESA if you are sick or incapable of work, either due to coronavirus or other health reasons, subject to meeting the eligibility conditions.”
Sick pay is worth a legal minimum of £96.35-a-week from next week, which unions blast as not nearly enough.
Can I still get furlough?
Furlough has been extended to September 30 and the letter says “you may continue to be eligible throughout this period.”
However, whether you’ll get it likely depends on the decision of your employer.
Can I still get supermarket deliveries?
Yes, for now.
Priority supermarket delivery slots will be available until June 21, but end after that.
From April 1, shielders are told: “You are not advised to avoid going to the shops.”
However, the advice adds people may choose to rely on deliveries, saying: “If you do go out to the shops or pharmacy, consider going at quieter times of the day. You must wear a face covering in all shops unless you are exempt.
Can I still get support from the council?
Not necessarily, no.
The letter to shielders say support from supermarkets and councils will continue until March 31, but after that there are no guarantees.
Instead, “councils will look to provide assistance wherever possible after that date.
People who have not yet registered for support must do so by the end of today by visiting https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus-shielding-support.