[This explainer article is part of the COVID-19 Information Dissemination (COVID-19 ID) Project — a partnership between Community Development and Health Network (CDHN) and FactCheckNI. Its aim is to improve people’s health literacy about COVID-19 by providing accurate and up-to-date information, which will increase knowledge, understanding and confidence and enable people to make good health decisions. FactCheckNI have also produced an article explaining what shielding letters are; who should have received them; and who sends them – you can find it here.]

Here are some questions and answers with regard to ‘shielding letters’.

What information is in the latest letter those who have been “shielding” have received?

The letter tells us that the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) advises that while the risk of COVID-19 remains low, those who have been shielding should continue to follow public health advice.

In terms of day to day support, patients can contact the Covid 19 Community Helpline for information, advice and support, including local volunteer supported shopping and local or community food support organisations.

The letter also provides information on resources such as the Minding Your Head website to those who may be worried or anxious. It states that tailored information and self-help guides from local mental health and wellbeing charities are available at the Covid Virtual Wellbeing Hub.

The letter also details information regarding work and working conditions for those with shielding letters. The CMO letter advises that if it has been possible to work from home while shielding, patients should continue to do this. However, if their employer has taken the proper measures to ensure social distancing in their place of work, and they can travel to work in a way which allows for social distancing, the fact that they have been shielding is not by itself a reason not to return to work. Information is also provided about accessing social security benefits, if needed.

Have there been any changes announced to shielding patients under the NI Executive’s ‘Pathway to Recovery’ plan?

From 6 July, people who are shielding will be able to meet up to six people outside the home, as long as social distancing is strictly observed.

In addition, people who are shielding and living alone will be able to form a support bubble with one other household, from 6 July. Social distancing is not mandated within this support bubble.

From 31 July, it is anticipated that shielding for extremely vulnerable people will be paused.

Are you breaking the law if you don’t follow the guidance?

No, you are not breaking the law if you choose not to follow the shielding guidance. The guidance issued is advisory for the patient’s health, but the UK government advises that if you choose not to follow these regulations, to speak with your GP before reaching the decision. Those who have received shielding letters are still governed by the same social distancing regulations, so will be breaking the law if they breach these.

How do I get my medication if I am shielded?

The Department of Health is working closely with Community Pharmacists to ensure that those who are in need of medicines and are ‘shielding’ can avail of pharmacy deliveries. People have been urged to, where possible, ask a family member, friend or neighbour to collect medicines from pharmacies and where needed, in extreme cases, pharmacies can deliver. The Department of Health and the Department for Communities are working in collaboration with the community to coordinate a volunteer-led scheme delivering medicines to patients. This is a temporary arrangement to support community pharmacies as they cope with additional demands during the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Does getting a shielding letter mean I will also get help with other things like buying food/getting online delivery slots for having my shopping delivered? Does this apply if my child/another family member has a shielding letter?

The Department for Communities announced on 5 May that they have been working with the big retailers to facilitate priority delivery slots for those who have been advised to shield by their GPs. Asda, Iceland, Sainsbury’s and Tesco have now confirmed they will allocate a proportion of online delivery slots to this group who need it most.

To register interest, those who received shielding letters must complete a short online form on NI Direct. It will ask you to confirm if your GP has advised you to self-isolate, your name, address and email, and that you agree for us to share your data. You will be asked to provide your health care number.

If your child has received a shielding letter, their health care number will be on the register and a priority slot can be requested quoting their number on the registration form. Every effort will be made by retailers to offer a priority online delivery slot although this is dependent on capacity and demand, and cannot be guaranteed.

The Department for Communities is working closely with the Information Commissioner given the data protections concerns involved. Other regions of the UK with centralised databases were able to more quickly share information about shielding citizens with major food retailers.

I didn’t get a shielding letter, but I do not have enough money to buy food, can I still get help?

For all those who cannot afford food but who did not receive a shielding letter, you can still avail of help through the COVID freephone community helpline on 0808 802 0020 and self refer for support.

I didn’t get a shielding letter, but I’m not able to leave the house to get food or medication, can I still get help?

Anyone in need can phone the COVID freephone community helpline on 0808 802 0020 where they can self refer. Alternatively, you can be referred through local independent advice sector organisations or grassroots community organisations, working with the local council, who can then respond to that local need. Council Hubs are coordinating volunteers and other community services to respond to those who need medication and/or food.

Do I need a shielding letter as proof to my employer/boss that I can’t come to work? What if my child has a shielding letter and I can’t go to work as I have to look after them?

Employees should talk to their employer as soon as they can if they:

  • have been told to start shielding; or
  • think they might get a letter telling them to start shielding.

If an employee receives a letter telling them to start shielding, they should stay at home for at least 12 weeks.

According to the Labour Relations Agency, employers should support staff following shielding guidelines. This might be a distressing or difficult time, so it’s important for employers to keep in touch during any absence. Any details about the employee’s medical condition must be kept confidential, unless the employee says they can be shared. If an employee still does not want to go in to work, they may be able to arrange with their employer to take the time off as holiday or unpaid leave. The employer does not have to agree to this.

If an employee refuses to attend work without a valid reason, it could result in disciplinary action.

An employee is protected by law against unfair treatment and dismissal, if it’s because of:

  • pregnancy;
  • age; or
  • a health condition that’s considered a disability under the Disability Discrimination Act.

It does not matter how long they’ve worked for the employer. It could be unlawful discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy, disability or age if an employer either:

  • unreasonably tries to pressure someone to go to work; or
  • unreasonably disciplines someone for not going to work.

Unfortunately, there is no specific guidance in place for those who live with someone who is shielding. In this situation, the Law Centre Northern Ireland would advise you to talk to your employer and try to come to a solution that is acceptable to both of you. You could, for instance, ask for time off unpaid – either as simple unpaid leave, or as dependents’ leave. You could also ask to be considered for furlough if your employer is subscribing to the scheme.

Am I entitled to sick pay if I get a shielding letter?

Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is a non-means tested benefit, eligibility is not based on national insurance contributions but on how much a person earns. If a person qualifies for SSP it is the minimum amount an employer must pay them as long as they qualify. You are entitled to SSP if you are self isolating or if you have to shield for 12 weeks. You may also be entitled to company sick pay if your employer has a scheme in place.

If you receive a shielding letter, this letter is evidence, for your employer, to show that you cannot work outside the home. You do not need to get a fit note from your GP.

Can I ask to be furloughed if I get a shielding letter?

Furloughed workers are workers who have had their employment suspended for a specified period. It is not the same as being laid off or made redundant – you will be kept on your employer’s payroll and retain employment benefits, with the intention that you will resume paid employment at the end of the period. While you are furloughed, your employer will be able to pay you up to 80% of your usual wage (up to a cap of £2,500 per month) using a grant from the UK government. Your employer can ‘top this up’ to your usual salary level if they wish, but they are not obliged to do so. This funding comes from the UK government’s coronavirus job retention scheme. The scheme is due to run for at least four months from 01 March 2020, but will be extended if necessary.

Employers must be especially careful and take extra steps for anyone in their workforce who is vulnerable to the virus. With regards to working from home or requesting to be furloughed if your employer is registered to the scheme, it would be best to write to or talk with your employer about this. If agreed and to be eligible for the grant, employers must confirm in writing (via letter or email) to you that you have been furloughed. Your employer cannot furlough you without your consent, but you do need to provide a written response.

Unfortunately, there is no specific guidance in place for those who live with someone who is shielding. In this situation, the Law Centre NI would advise you to talk to your employer and try to come to a solution that is acceptable to both of you. You could, for instance, ask for time off unpaid – either as simple unpaid leave, as dependents’ leave, or ask to be furloughed.

Other regions: England, Wales and Scotland

All regions in the UK have used the same criteria for identifying those who should be shielding as agreed by the Chief Medical Officer in each region.

In England, due to the central database that exists, the Chief Medical Officer sent letters to all those who are defined as ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ and GPs were asked to review them from their own databases. Those who received the letter were asked to register online for additional support. The English Government was able to provide supermarkets with lists of those who received shielding letters for priority shopping slots.

In Wales, like England, those required to shield were sent a letter by the Chief Medical Officer reviewed by GPs. This list was provided to supermarkets and councils to target additional support. Food boxes are available for those who are shielding if it isn’t possible to get support from friends, family, voluntary organisations or community members for foods and medicine.

In Scotland, the NHS National Services Scotland (NSS) has used existing databases to determine patients identified as at high clinical risk and support is available for those who require medicines and/or food. Only those who received a shielding letter are eligible for a Scottish Government food parcel. Patients need to register with the SMS Shielding Service for this. To access supermarket priority delivery slots, those who received shielding letters can register directly with the SMS shielding service. Once patients have been verified as eligible for shielding support, they will be contacted through SMS to seek consent to share details with supermarkets.

This article was originally published on 2 June 2020.

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