The UK Government has announced it will be providing free vitamin D supplements to vulnerable people starting in January.
More than 2.5 million in England who are considered at-risk will be offered a free supply of the vitamin in a bid to protect the vulnerable from coronavirus.
Care homes in England will automatically receive supplies of the supplement for their residents in plans announced on Saturday.
People on the clinically extremely vulnerable list will be sent a letter offering them the chance to opt in for a supply to their homes.
The free deliveries will start in January, providing a four months vitamin D supply to up to 2.7 million people, the MEN reports.
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Public Health England (PHE) advises everyone to take 10 microgrammes of vitamin D per day between October and early March.
In a statement issued alongside the announcement on Saturday, PHE added: "Some of us are more at risk of not having enough vitamin D even in spring and summer, including those with dark skin (such as those with African, African-Caribbean or south Asian backgrounds), those who are not outdoors often, those in care homes, and those who cover up most of the skin when outdoors. We advise these people to take a vitamin D supplement all year round."
Vitamin D is often referred to as the sunshine vitamin because, from about late March to the end of September, most people should be able to get all the vitamin D they need from sunlight.
The body creates vitamin D from direct sunlight on the skin when outdoors, but between October and early March people do not get enough vitamin D from sunlight.
Additionally, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown measures, many may have a higher risk of a vitamin D deficiency.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “Because of the incredible sacrifices made by the British people to control the virus, many of us have spent more time indoors this year and could be deficient in vitamin D.
“The Government is taking action to ensure vulnerable individuals can access a free supply to last them through the darker winter months.
“This will support their general health, keep their bones and muscles healthy and crucially reduce the pressure on our NHS.”
Anyone who can purchase vitamin D supplements is advised to start taking them now, even if eligible for a delivery next year.
Research is ongoing to investigate the link between vitamin D and Covid-19 protection, including a project at Queen Mary University investigating if correcting people’s vitamin D deficiencies over winter can reduce the risk and/or severity of Covid-19 and other acute respiratory infections.
Mr Hancock has asked PHE and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) to re-review existing evidence on the link between vitamin D and Covid-19 “to ensure we explore every potential opportunity to beat this virus”.
The Royal Osteoporosis Society welcomed news of the free supply, saying the policy “could play a major role in improving public health during a uniquely challenging winter”.
Its chief executive Craig Jones said: “While more evidence is needed to confirm its role in boosting immunity to respiratory infections, vitamin D is already proven to play a major role in keeping muscles and bone healthy.
“People’s natural levels of vitamin D from exposure to sunlight will be lower right now, due to shorter daylight hours and less time spent outdoors during lockdown.
“As a result, the risk of falls and broken bones may be increasing for people with the fragile bone condition osteoporosis during the course of the pandemic.
“That’s why we recommend everyone takes a 10 microgram (400IU) vitamin D supplement at least during the winter to improve bone health, ideally combined with a balanced healthy diet and regular physical activity, even in people’s gardens.”
While Covid-19 can make anyone seriously ill, there are some groups of people where the risk is higher.
There are currently two levels on higher risk - clinically extremely vulnerable and clinically vulnerable.
People on the clinically extremely vulnerable list will be offered a free supply of vitamin D from the government.
According to the NHS, People at high risk (clinically extremely vulnerable) may be at high risk from coronavirus if they: