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Due to IT issues, employees of the Shielding scheme have reached only a handful of people in weeks, the employee claims

A whistleblower who works for the NHS National Shielding scheme claims that their IT system “keeps crashing” and that they have only spoken to a handful of people in need over the past month.

The employee says they “did nothing” for days at the call center office in Bury in Greater Manchester, while over 1.5 million vulnerable people on the “shielded” list isolate themselves at home.

The whistleblower also claims that the entire workforce working on the scheme may also be told to isolate themselves for 14 days after one of the employees is reported living with someone who has tested positive for the virus.

An image of the food packages with essentials being sent to people across the country

An image of the food packages with essentials being sent to people across the country

Who are the ‘risk groups’ who have to stay at home?

People with underlying health problems, including severe asthma and specific cancers, are urged to stay at home at all times during the coronavirus pandemic.

Children and adults who already have serious health problems are most at risk of needing hospital treatment for Covid-19, according to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

The government has strongly advised people in the risk categories to take “foreclosure” measures by staying at home at all times and avoiding any personal contact for at least 12 weeks.

The risk groups are contacted by letter by NHS England and must implement the measures from the day they receive it, the DHSC said.

People most at risk include:

  • Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radical radiotherapy for lung cancer, as well as patients with cancer of the blood or bone marrow that are at any stage of their treatment.
  • People who have immunotherapy or other ongoing antibody treatments for cancer.
  • Those undergoing targeted cancer treatments that can affect the immune system, such as protein kinase inhibitors.
  • People who have had bone marrow or stem cell transplants in the past six months or who are still taking immunosuppressants.
  • Those with respiratory diseases including severe asthma, severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cystic fibrosis.
  • Pregnant women with severe heart disease.

The DHSC said that people with rare diseases and congenital metabolic disorders that significantly increase the infection are also classified as a high risk.

The whistleblower, who is paid £ 9.30 an hour and calls MailOnline with ‘Nic’, is deployed to call people on the foreclosure list to ensure they have enough food, need help collecting medicines 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 contracting coronavirus.

It is because high-risk people who have been “shielded” from the coronavirus for more than two months feel “left behind and forgotten” after being told that their isolation can continue “for several more months.”

Nearly 50 charities have written an open letter to the government urging the urgent need to publish clear and consistent advice on foreclosure measures to ensure that such people protect themselves and have access to support if the lock is facilitated.

Nic was fired and applied to the project four weeks ago.

They heard of the role through an agency, and the following day they were sent in for a day of training at a Capita-owned building in Bury, before starting on Monday.

Work included logging into a computer, plugging in headphones, and then being connected to one of the 1.5 million medically vulnerable citizens who had to stay at home to “protect” themselves against the virus.

A series of script questions would then appear on the screen for the call handler to assess what it took to help the person on the other end of the line – be it a food package, help collecting medicines, or just someone to help with to talk.

“It seemed like such a job that was worth it and although the salary was just £ 9.30 an hour, we were all really motivated to do it,” said Nic, who works with 120 other employees from 9am to 6pm .

“But when we logged in on the first Monday morning, the system didn’t work. The calls were supposed to be made automatically and the screen for you would show details of who called the system.

“First of all, they said it was teething, and in the second week that we were all doing nothing, we heard they were waiting for the data to be entered.

“We were also told that the system had worked for another call center in Leeds but was not working for us. Few of us believed that. ‘

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

“Some of them would say that they were absolutely fine and that someone dropped off the shopping, but others were desperate for a food package because they had nothing,” added the whistleblower.

Community Secretary Robert Jenrick helps deliver free food boxes to the most clinically vulnerable in Tonbridge, Kent as the plan rolls out across England

Community Secretary Robert Jenrick helps deliver free food boxes to the most clinically vulnerable in Tonbridge, Kent as the plan rolls out across England

Community Secretary Robert Jenrick helps deliver free food boxes to the most clinically vulnerable in Tonbridge, Kent as the plan rolls out across England

What is shielding?

Shielding is a measure to protect extremely vulnerable people by minimizing the interaction between extremely vulnerable and others.

This means that those who are extremely vulnerable should not leave their home and minimize any nonessential contact with other members of their household within their home.

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

If you have a condition that makes you vulnerable or receive a letter from the NHS, protect yourself to reduce the risk of contracting the virus.

The measures are:

1. Avoid strict contact with anyone who has symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19). These symptoms include high temperature and / or new and continuous cough.

2. Don’t leave your house.

3. Don’t go to meetings. This includes gatherings of friends and families in private spaces, such as family homes, weddings and religious services.

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

5. Stay connected using external technology such as telephone, internet and social media.

“Some thanked us for ringing, some asked why it had taken so long to make contact. There were some really desperate people.

“One of my colleagues was in contact with someone who was talking about suicide because they couldn’t handle not seeing anyone. They eventually had to call on their behalf. ‘

But this day of successful contacts turned out to be a flash, as the system crashed within minutes of starting at 9am the next day – and hasn’t recovered since.

“The system recycles the numbers we called and received no response or anything else,” said Nic.

‘Nine hours a day we turn our thumbs and stare into space. We are not allowed to have our phones with us for data protection reasons and they frown on us on maps

‘Many employees thought it was too mentally exhausting to deal with it. It’s really hard to do nothing for nine hours a day, especially when you know how many people need it to work.

“I estimate that I haven’t spoken to more than 50 households in four weeks. It is really pathetic. ‘

Earlier today, nearly 50 charity bosses wrote an open letter to the government urging the urgent need to publish clear and consistent advice on safeguards to ensure that vulnerable people protect themselves and access support when the lockdown is simplified.

Steven McIntosh, policy director for Macmillan Cancer Support, said the latest announcement was “incredibly bleak and disturbing” for people in the high-risk category.

He told PA news agency: “It’s just not acceptable that they just get a message that they should keep doing this for a while, understand what that means and what support is available.

“Macmillan hears of people who feel left behind and forgotten, who received a letter in early March saying that they should remain in total seclusion, not leave the house, see anyone, protect themselves.

“They feel that there is a huge lack of communication to help them understand what lockdown means to them.

“The whole society is struggling with the consequences of a lockdown, but for someone with a serious medical condition … who has already spent three months in total lockdown without leaving the house, and is now spending months with much uncertainty about what that means for them, that is incredibly bleak and disturbing.

“Many of them feel they are seeing the days of their lives ticking away with no certainty as to when they will be able to see their loved ones, leave their homes, or live their lives to the fullest.”

The Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment has been approached for comment.