There has been a huge rise in clinically vulnerable people seeking support ahead of legal restrictions being lifted in England on Monday and rising COVID case numbers, a group of leading charities have said.
Policy director at Kidney Care UK Fiona Loud says there has been a “tidal wave of people getting in touch with us and our partner charities”.
“We are overwhelmed with people asking for support and feeling distressed,” she adds.
Ellie Dawes, from the Aplastic Anaemia Trust, says “we’ve seen an 800% increase in the number of people who’ve been contacting our support line” since the announcement about the removal of final restrictions was made.
There are 3.8 million people in the UK who are classed as clinically extremely vulnerable, and 500,000 people who are immunosuppressed. Those who are immunosuppressed may have reduced, or no protection at all from the vaccine.
Professor Emma Morris, director of UCL’s Division of Infection and Immunity, says people can become immunosuppressed from diseases which affect how the immune system works, or by taking drugs which intentionally suppress the immune system after an organ transplant or during treatment for certain cancers.
“I think the risk to those patients who are immunosuppressed, who haven’t been protected by the vaccine, is as high as it has ever been,” she says.
Hal Cohen has had two kidney transplants, the most recent after a donation from his father in December 2019.
The drugs which stop his body rejecting his kidney also mean he’s had no response to the COVID vaccine.
“I don’t have any antibodies or T-cells,” he says, which means he’s unlikely to be protected against the coronavirus.
This leaves Hal and others like him feeling anxious, as the chance of dying of COVID-19 is much higher for people who’ve had transplants.
Hal says the lifting of legal restrictions, particularly face masks no longer being required in some settings, means he could lose freedoms come 19 July.
“Even things I would take for granted previously like having a haircut, I don’t know now if there are places where I can go where the person cutting the hair will be wearing a mask, or if other people will be wearing a mask – even basic things seem like a bit of a challenge going forward.”
Hal is calling for immunosuppressed people to be allowed to take part in more clinical trials like “booster doses of vaccines, mixing and matching different types of vaccines, or even some of the alternative treatments that are intended to prevent you getting COVID in the first place”.
Immunosuppressed people are often excluded from clinical trials, but Hal says being allowed to participate could “help us get back to normal like everyone else”.
This call is echoed by charities like Kidney Care UK which also wants to see a commitment from the government that immunosuppressed people will benefit from employment support when furlough ends.
Both charities and scientists say there must be clear public health messaging so immunocompromised people know they may not have as much protection from the vaccine.
Prof Morris says: “We need to let people know that they are at an ongoing risk if the case numbers continue to increase – and that isn’t magically going to go away on Monday, when a number of restrictions will be lifted.”