Thousands of letters giving updated advice on shielding have begun arriving in homes in Northern Ireland.
They are for those who have been judged to be the most vulnerable to Covid-19 – in the region of 80,000 people.
They received a similar letter three months ago advising them to shield for 12 weeks. The new guidance is valid until the end of June.
In the letter, Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer says he knows it has been “a very challenging time”.
Dr Michael McBride explained “the Covid-19 virus still poses a high risk” but that “infection levels are now falling” so the “risk of exposure is significantly less”.
However, the letter also states that people shielding should continue to practise social distancing of two metres and wash their hands regularly.
The updated guidance from the chief medical officer states:
- If you wish to spend time outdoors (though not in other buildings, households, or enclosed spaces) you should take extra care to minimise contact with others by keeping 2m apart
- If you choose to spend time outdoors, this can be with members of your own household. If you live alone, you can spend time outdoors with one person from another household (ideally the same person each time)
- You should remain vigilant when leaving home, washing your hands regularly, maintaining social distance and avoiding gatherings of any size
- You should not attend any gatherings, including gatherings of friends and families in private spaces, for example, parties, weddings and religious services
- You should strictly avoid contact with anyone who is displaying symptoms of Covid-19 (a new continuous cough, a high temperature, or a loss of, or change in, the sense of taste or smell)
Belfast woman Issy McManus has rheumatoid arthritis and takes regular medication which suppresses her immune system.
She received an initial shielding letter.
Mrs McManus, who recently remarried and lives with her new husband, Gerry, said she found it difficult to follow the shielding advice.
“The only people that came to see me were my nieces – it was talking to them through the patio doors really, and it absolutely wrecked my nerves,” she said.
“I couldn’t cope with it. I’m very sociable, and I just found it impossible. We’re only newly married and so it’s been a poor baptism of fire for Gerry as well, so it was hard work.”
Her new letter with updated guidance arrived on Monday.
Mrs McManus said she initially feared it would tell her to stay indoors.
“I just thought ‘I can’t cope with this really; I can’t go through all that again’. I really need to be outside in my garden… but to think I should be back in the house and doing that, completely locked down, no, I can’t do it.”
Dr Ursula Brennan, a Belfast GP and GP lead for the Belfast Covid Centre, said she is hopeful that with the reduction in the number of cases of Covid-19 in the community there will be a further relaxation of the rules in the coming weeks.
“We know it’s been very difficult for those who’ve been shielding over the 12 weeks, particularly with regards to their mental health and their emotional wellbeing,” she said.
“But this is good news, that it allows those people now to spend time outdoors either with their own family, but being particularly careful with social distancing, the two metre gap between individuals outside.
“Those individuals who have been living alone – they can spend time outdoors with one other person not from their household preferably the same person and again being sure to maintain social distancing and hand washing and those are really key features of Covid and they need to continue.”
Dr Brennan advises people who have received a letter to seek clarification from their GP or hospital specialist if they are unclear about anything.
In a separate development, Northern Ireland’s health minister has said that the drug Dexamethasone will be rolled out across Northern Ireland in advance of a potential second wave of Covid-19.
The drug is part of the world’s biggest trial testing existing treatments to see if they also work for coronavirus.
The low-dose steroid treatment is a major breakthrough in the fight against the deadly virus, UK experts say.
It will provide “huge benefits to those most impacted by the infection, ultimately helping to save lives”, Robin Swann added.
Meanwhile, the first international passenger plane touched down at Belfast International Airportl for the first time since the coronavirus lockdown in March.
Five passengers were on board the flight from Faro, in the Portuguese Algarve.
The passengers are subject to new isolation regulations in force across the UK, meaning they must self-isolate for 14 days.
The quarantine rules came into force on 12 June. Anyone arriving from the Common Travel Area (CTA) – the Republic of Ireland, the Channel Islands, or the Isle of Man – does not have to enter quarantine.
In other developments on Tuesday:
- Education Minister Peter Weir is to bid for money from Stormont’s Covid-19 fund to extend free school meal payments over the summer
- One new coronavirus-related death was recorded by the Department of Health, bringing its total to 542
- The Department of Education is considering two-week summer schools for pupils going into Years 5, 6 and 7
- Unemployment in Northern Ireland has more than doubled in two months, official figures suggest
- The Republic of Ireland recorded three new deaths on Tuesday, taking the total number of coronavirus-related deaths to 1,709