Dr Jenny Harries did a webchat with Mumsnet on 8 July 2020 to answer users’ questions about how to keep vulnerable children safe as shielding guidance is relaxed. You can find out more about changes in the guidance here.
How can parents of vulnerable children - or parents who are themselves vulnerable - be confident about the return to work or school?
“We know that, fortunately, most children very rarely get any significant illness with COVID-19 infection, so most parents can be reassured about their children going back to school. Social bubbles are also good because they keep the number of social interactions down – a bit like living in a school family.
When you go back to work, just like the rest of us, you should continue to keep washing your hands and social distance when you can, but the levels of virus in the community now are very low, which is why we have relaxed the shielding guidance."
What about siblings of shielded children? Can we be confident that they won’t bring the infection home from school?
“We are all really aware of how important it is for children to be in school and complete their education – it will set their own health outcomes as adults for themselves and their families.
It's impossible to absolutely guarantee safety for any illness, including COVID-19. The same sorts of issues often arise for families when it's flu season. However, we have relaxed the advice for shielding people because we know that the transmission of the virus in most communities is very low. If it rises in a local area in the future – such as Leicester – then we will immediately provide special advice for those in the affected area who are on the Shielded Patient List.
One of the difficulties with giving shielding advice is that everyone's individual family circumstances and housing is very different. The important thing is to remember to do the basics as frequently as possible – so keeping your distance, washing hands frequently and keeping the overall number of social interactions down.
Going to school is also really important, and they have strict control measures in place to ensure any risk of infection is absolutely minimised, and special access to Test and Trace.
We would not be advising schools to open if we thought they were unsafe."
Our baby daughter has complex health needs. Can we take her to visit her grandparents, who have also been shielding?
“As your daughter's case is quite complex, it's probably important to have a quick discussion with your doctor next time you have an appointment. Overall, the likelihood of your daughter or your parents meeting the virus now in the community is very low, and if it rises locally we will be letting you know so you can take extra precautions if necessary.”
If there’s a local lockdown, will vulnerable children need to shield again? How will we be told?
“If there are any local lockdowns in your area, we will always identify those people on the shielded patient list and give them special advice until the cases have lowered again in their area. We have done this for Leicester, so we know it works.”
Why is important guidance like this being leaked to the media ahead of official announcements?
“Unfortunately, sometimes where we engage early to help patients understand what is being planned or announced, it does result in some media leakage of information. I’m really sorry if that has happened to you. Hopefully you will have seen from the latest announcements that we are always trying to build in some time so that people can get used to the idea changes in their daily lives.”
About Dr Jenny Harries
Jenny Harries was appointed Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England in July 2019, taking on a broad portfolio including the health service and commissioning support. Jenny’s previous roles include: PHE Deputy Medical Director, PHE Executive Lead for specialised commissioning and Welsh National Health and Healthcare Director.
Alongside these roles, Jenny has been a member of the Welsh Medicines Committee and the Clinical Priorities Advisory Group. Jenny has an extensive clinical and public health background (BSc (Hons) Pharmacology; MPH; FFPH) and her work has extended overseas as far afield as New Zealand, Pakistan and Kenya.
She was awarded an OBE in the 2016 New Year’s Honours List for services to Public Health. She advises the government on its response to coronavirus.