United Kingdom

IT issues mean Shielding scheme staff have reached just a handful of people in weeks, worker claims

A whistleblower who works for the NHS National Shielding scheme claims their IT system 'keeps crashing' and they have only spoken to a handful of those in need in the last month.

The worker says they have been left 'doing nothing' for days on end in the call centre office in Bury in Greater Manchester, as more than 1.5million vulnerable people on the 'shielded' list isolate at home.

The whistleblower also claims the entire office of staff working on the scheme could also be told to self-isolate for 14 days after reports that one of the employees lives with someone who tested positive for the virus. 

An image of the food parcels containing essentials being sent to people across the country

Who are the 'at risk' groups who need to stay at home? 

People with underlying health conditions including severe asthma and specific cancers are being urged to stay at home 'at all times' amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Children and adults already suffering from serious health conditions face the highest risk of needing hospital treatment for Covid-19, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.

The Government has strongly advised people who fall into the high-risk categories to exercise 'shielding' measures by staying at home at all times and avoid any face-to-face contact for at least 12 weeks.

Those at risk will be contacted by NHS England via letter and should implement the measures from the day they receive it, the DHSC said.

People who are most at risk include:

The DHSC said people with rare diseases and inborn errors of metabolism that significantly increase infection are also classed as high-risk. 

The whistleblower, who is being paid £9.30-an-hour and MailOnline is calling 'Nic' is employed to call people on the shielding list, to ensure they have enough food, need help with collecting medication or just someone to talk to.

But they say they have had little contact with the patients, who were told by the government in March to stay at home because they are particularly vulnerable to catching coronavirus.

It comes as high-risk people who have spent more than two months 'shielding 'from coronavirus say they feel 'left behind and forgotten about', after being told their isolation may continue for 'several more months'.

Nearly 50 charity bosses have written an open letter to the Government calling for the urgent need to publish clear, consistent advice on shielding measures to ensure such people protect themselves and can access support as lockdown eases.

'Nic' was furloughed from their job and applied to work on the project four weeks ago.

They heard about the role through an agency and the following day was sent for a day's training at a building owned by Capita in Bury, before starting on the Monday.

The work involved logging onto a computer, attaching some headphones and then being connected to one of the 1.5 million medically vulnerable citizens having to stay at home to 'shield' against the virus.

A series of scripted questions would then appear on screen for the call handler to assess what was required to help the person at the other end of the line – be it a food parcel, help with collecting medication or just someone to talk to.

'It seemed such a worthwhile job and, although the pay was only £9.30-an-hour, we were all really motivated to do it,' said Nic, who works with 120 other staff from 9am-6pm.

'But when we went to log in on the first Monday morning, the system didn't work. It was supposed to make the calls automatically and on the screen in front of you would appear the details of who the system was calling.

'First of all they said it was teething troubles and then during the second week of us all doing nothing we heard that they were waiting for the data to be inputted.

'We were also told that the system had worked for another call centre in Leeds but just wasn't working for us. Few of us believed that.'

Nic said that the system did suddenly start working after about two weeks and staff had a successful day contacting people.   

'Some of them would say they were absolutely fine and had someone dropping off shopping, but others were desperate for a food package to be sent because they had nothing,' the whistleblower added.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, helps deliver free food boxes to the most clinically vulnerable in Tonbridge, Kent, as the scheme is rolled out across England

What is shielding?

Shielding is a measure to protect extremely vulnerable people by minimising interaction between those who are extremely vulnerable and others. 

This means that those who are extremely vulnerable should not leave their homes, and within their homes should minimise all non-essential contact with other members of their household. 

This is to protect those who are at very high risk of severe illness from coronavirus (COVID-19) from coming into contact with the virus.

If you have a condition which makes you vulnerable or receive a letter from the NHS you should shield yourself to reduce the risk of catching the virus. 

The measures are:

1. Strictly avoid contact with someone who is displaying symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19). These symptoms include high temperature and/or new and continuous cough.

2. Do not leave your house.

3. Do not attend any gatherings. This includes gatherings of friends and families in private spaces for example family homes, weddings and religious services.

4. Do not go out for shopping, leisure or travel and, when arranging food or medication deliveries, these should be left at the door to minimise contact.

5. Keep in touch using remote technology such as phone, internet, and social media.

'Some thanked us for ringing, some asked why it had taken so long for there to be any contact. There were some really desperate people out there.

'One of my colleagues connected to someone who was talking about killing themselves because they could not cope with not seeing anyone. They ended up having to ring 999 on their behalf.'

But this day of making successful contacts proved to be a flash in the pan as the system crashed within minutes of starting at 9am the following day - and hasn't recovered since. 

'The system is recycling the numbers that we've rung and not got a reply from and then providing us with nothing else,' Nic said.

'For nine hours a day we are sat twiddling our thumbs and staring into space. We are not allowed to have our phones with us for data protection reasons and they frown on us playing cards

'A lot of staff have found it too mentally draining to cope. It's really difficult doing nothing for nine hours a day especially when you know how many people out there really need this to work.

'I would estimate that in four weeks I have spoken to no more than 50 households. It's really pathetic.'

Earlier today, nearly 50 charity bosses wrote an open letter to the Government calling for the urgent need to publish clear, consistent advice on shielding measures to ensure vulnerable people protect themselves and can access support as lockdown eases.

Steven McIntosh, Macmillan Cancer Support policy director, said the latest announcement was 'incredibly bleak and distressing' for those in the high-risk category.

He told the PA news agency: 'It's simply not acceptable that they just get a message that they are going to have to continue to do this for some time longer, they need to understand what that means and what support is available.

'Macmillan is hearing from people who feel left behind and forgotten, who got a letter at the start of March telling them to stay in total lockdown, not to leave the house, not to see anyone, to protect themselves.

'They feel there has been a huge lack of communication to help them understand what lockdown means for them.

'All of society has been struggling with the impact of lockdown, but for someone with a severe medical condition… already having spent three months in total lockdown without leaving the house, and now spending further months with a lot of uncertainty about what that means for them, that is incredibly bleak and distressing.

'Many of them feel that they are seeing the days of their lives ticking away without any certainty as to when they are going to be able to see their loved ones, leave their house, or live their lives to the fullest.'

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has been approached for comment. 

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