Around 90,000 children and teenagers suffering from underlying conditions such as asthma are currently shielding – Gareth Copley/Getty Images
Most children who are shielding will not have to take such precautions in event of a second wave of coronavirus, Government advisers have said.
The change of tack raises questions over why almost 100,000 children have been forced to stay at home for months.
In total, around 2.2 million people have been advised to stay at home because they are at great risk of severe consequences from Covid-19. They include around 94,000 children and teenagers suffering from underlying conditions such as asthma, diabetes, epilepsy and kidney disease.
On Monday, England’s deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries, said the vast majority of children would not be asked to shield in the event of a second virus wave.
Only a small group who receive specialist care in hospitals – including those receiving cancer care or those with immunodeficiency – are likely to be advised to stay at home.
Dr Harries said the advice had changed because understanding of coronavirus had developed, showing that most children and young people are at low risk of serious illness.
However, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said children who had been given advice to shield should still stay at home until the end of July, when the shielding programme lifts, or until they received specific new advice from their GP.
It comes as shielding rules are relaxed from Monday, meaning those who have been advised to stay at home can meet in groups of five if they are socially distancing, while those who live alone can form a bubble with with other households.
DHSC said children would only be removed from the list by their GP or specialist doctor following consultation with the child and their family.
Last month, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) said many children with conditions such as cerebral palsy and scoliosis should no longer be shielded, adding that the benefits of school outweighed the risk of infection.
Dr Harries said: “I do not underestimate the difficulty of children having to stay indoors and to only have limited contact with family and friends for such a long time.
“As our understanding of this novel virus has developed, evidence shows most children and young people are at low risk of serious illness and will no longer be advised to shield after July.
“Families who are uncertain about whether shielding is right for their child in the future will want to discuss this with their doctor, who will be best placed to determine the most appropriate care. These discussions will take place over the summer.”
Dr Mike Linney, registrar at the RCPCH, said: “Lockdown has been tough on children generally, but especially for those who have been shielding. It’s been a long haul for thousands of families, and we hope this announcement brings some relief.
“Fortunately, children are less affected by Covid-19. This appears to be the case not just in the UK but also worldwide. However, they have suffered from the social effects of lockdown, isolation, and school closures.
“We know that many families who have been shielding will have concerns. The important point of this guidance is that paediatricians and specialist doctors now have better information to discuss shielding with patients and their families.
“Children under the sole care of a GP are very unlikely to need to continue shielding but, if you are worried, seek reassurance.
“Should we face a second wave, this guidance will allow us to make better decisions about who needs to shield. It was right to be cautious when we knew so little about the virus, but we now have a lot of evidence to guide us.
“We can be confident that the vast majority of children and young people don’t need to shield.”