Jeane Freeman said the low infection rate in Scotland meant advice for those shielding is changing earlier than expected, and would allow shielders to “resume a more normal and relaxed life”.
She said the government’s hope was to end shielding altogether by the end of July if the rate of infections continued to fall.
People who were classed as "clinically extremely vulnerable” should they catch coronavirus had been advised since the start of the pandemic to take additional actions to stop themselves from coming into contact with Covid-19, including staying at home, and even withdrawing to one room if their household contained people who were key workers.
However during the easing of lockdown, the Scottish Government said last month that shielded people could start to go back outside if they stuck to social distance measures.
Today Ms Freeman said that the easing would gather pace for shielders from Friday, and ensure they still “stay safe and feel comfortable”.
She said: “From Friday we no longer advise you to physically distance yourself from the people you live with. I know that for many of you doing this has been extremely difficult and painful and I hope this change will allow you to resume a more normal and relaxed life with those closest to you.”
She added: “If there are children in your household under 12 they no longer need to physically distance from children outside – as long as those other children are not shielding.
“I know many single parents, or those living alone, have missed the support of family and friends so also from Friday if you’re shielding you can form an extended household. So if you're living alone, or only with people under the age of 18, you can join one other household, and you and the members of that extended household do not need to physically distance from each other and you can spend the night in each others’ houses.”
She said that shielders who normally help to care for children under 12, can now resume doing so and can also book holiday accommodation or go to a second home provided neither have shared faciliites. “I hope many of you can take advantage of this change, but we do strongly advise you only do this with people you live with or with whom you have an extended household,” she said.
“You can also meet up with two other households outdoors rather than one and can go inside to use the toilet of a household you might be visiting. But we still advise you only meet in groups of eight people and don’t meet any more than two households each day.”
Ms Freeman said there would be more detail tomorrow on other changes for shielders and the government would be sending letters to all in that position.
“I hope the changes we have announced will help to ease an extraordinary burden that shielding has placed on you over the last few months, I can’t say enought to express how grateful I am to you for following the advice. It's been stressful, at times it's felt frightening and it has been restrictive.
“Right now we can ease the restrictions because of the falling infection rate. If you follow precautions our clinlical advisors tell us the risk of you catching the infection is now low, which is very different from the start of the pandemic.
“I hope you're able to resume much more of your lives than you have been able to do. If you work, our objective of moving slowly and carefully towards the end of this month when we hope we will be able to pause shielding, you could return to Covid-secure work places with physical distancing, and children who are shielding could return to school at the same time as their classmates.
“For some this might be daunting and more information about risks you face and how to live safely will be on the NHS inform website. We will only advise you can stop shielding if the evidence supports it, and no matter when it ends, you will have advice and support to transition back to your pre-Covid lives.”
The announcement was welcomed by charities, including Age Scotland. Head of Policy Adam Stachura said: “After more than 100 days, this news will come as a welcome relief for those shielding and particularly so for the tens of thousands who have also been living alone.
“This has been an excruciatingly difficult time for them and being able to see and interact with others safely will have a positive impact on their mental health.
“There has been a significant increase in the number of older people becoming more and more lonely over the last few months. We have witnessed this first hand as the number of callers to our 0800 12 44 222 helpline looking for a friendly chat has increased.
“Loneliness was a public health challenge in Scotland before this crisis hit and the effects will be felt for a long time to come. It’s so important that, as a nation, we increase the measures available to get people more socially connected so they know they are not alone.”
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