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Coronavirus: At-risk patients in Northern Ireland still to receive 'shielding' letters

Apology over delay for people at high risk

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The new Northern Ireland Nightingale wards are designed to treat coronavirus sufferers at Belfast City Hospital.

The new Northern Ireland Nightingale wards are designed to treat coronavirus sufferers at Belfast City Hospital.

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

The new Northern Ireland Nightingale wards are designed to treat coronavirus sufferers at Belfast City Hospital.

A leading GP has apologised after patients across Northern Ireland at high risk from coronavirus were left waiting more than a week for crucial "shielding" letters.

Dr Laurence Dorman, chairperson of the Royal College of General Practitioners NI, said GPs are doing all they can to ensure that those still waiting for the letters receive them after the deadline passed on March 29.

Last month the Government revealed that 1.5m people across the UK - 40,000 of them here - should be staying indoors for 12 weeks to protect themselves from the deadly infection.

The Health and Social Care Board here said it has asked GPs to send letters to patients with underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk of severe illness if they contract Covid-19.

The HSCB said it cannot provide an "exact figure on how many letters have been distributed, or when they were sent, as each GP practice is responsible" for the issuing of letters.

Those identified at high risk include recipients of transplants and cancer patients, including those undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Patients with severe respiratory conditions such as cystic fibrosis and COPD, along with pregnant women with significant heart disease, are also deemed at high risk. All those who receive letters should remain at home at all times and minimise contact with others in their household.

Since the deadline has passed, more and more patients have voiced concern that they are still yet to receive a letter.

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Process: Dr Laurence Dorman

Process: Dr Laurence Dorman

Process: Dr Laurence Dorman

The Belfast Telegraph has learned some patients were left in limbo after being unable to find out if they are on the at-risk list after phoning their GP.

Others have expressed concern that they have potentially put themselves at risk during the intervening period while they wait to be told to shield themselves.

Dr Dorman told the Belfast Telegraph that he hoped remaining patients will be informed over coming days, explaining that the issuing of letters is a painstaking process for GPs.

"The data is put into our systems and then we have to extract it from our systems and go through it manually," he said.

He stressed the situation is far more "nuanced" than it may appear, adding the information provided to them is not an exhaustive list.

"GPs are also looking at people who aren't marked on the list but who are very high risk. I know we have a few patients who are not yet on kidney dialysis but are very high risk of being on it, so they should be on it (the list). So we have a bit of discretion on that," revealed Dr Dorman.

The RCGP chairperson also said the information provided to GPs may not reflect the current medical status of a patient, so in that case it may be unnecessary for a letter to be issued.

"There are people who aren't on the letters (list) who have been contacting the surgery saying, 'I haven't got a letter, I think should have done', and we go through it and technically they don't meet it (the criteria)," he added.

"But what we are saying is be careful. Again this is where it gets into a grey area. But what we are saying is, 'You shouldn't be full shielding but we think you should be really careful'.

"GPs are on this and if it's a bit delayed we are sorry about that, and we hope the letters will get out. Full shielding is no joke. It's a big thing for people to undertake."

Belfast Telegraph