There is anecdotal evidence that some people with blood cancer have struggled to get a booster jab. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images
Charities ask for more government help and blame confusion over access to care, shortage of boosters and lack of shielding support
Ministers have been accused of failing to protect the most vulnerable people from rising Covid cases after it emerged that people with blood cancer now account for a higher proportion of coronavirus deaths than earlier in the pandemic.
With daily case numbers at record highs as a result of the Omicron variant, charities warn that people with suppressed immune systems who had been helped to shield at the start of the pandemic felt obliged to put themselves at risk at work, were confused about how to access treatments and less likely to have protection from vaccines.
More than 3,000 people with blood cancer – just over 1 in 100 of all those who have the disease in England and Wales – have died of Covid, according to analysis of official data by Blood Cancer UK. This is despite these patients having spent long periods shielding to avoid contact with the virus.
People with blood cancer are now accounting for a much higher proportion of Covid deaths than previously, the figures suggest – one in 23 Covid deaths between July and September, compared with one in 45 deaths between January and March.
Charities said they believed the increase was linked to the end of shielding and the fact that people with blood cancer have weakened immune systems less likely to respond strongly to vaccines. They called for greater support to be reintroduced for those with conditions that seriously affect the immune system, including short-term financial help for those who cannot work from home.
There is anecdotal evidence that some sufferers have struggled to secure a booster dose three months after their third dose of vaccine, as they have been advised to do. There is also confusion over how they can access antiviral drugs purchased by the government that ministers said would be available from last week.
“We are very worried about what the rise of Omicron means for our community, as there has been a shocking lack of messaging or advice about how to stay safe, given how vulnerable people with blood cancer are to Covid,” said Gemma Peters, chief executive of Blood Cancer UK.
“The government policy for times of the greatest danger seems to have gone from shielding the vulnerable to no protection at all. The government and the NHS owes it to the memory of the 3,101 people who have already died of Covid to do a much better job of protecting people with blood cancer in the difficult weeks ahead as the Omicron variant takes hold.
“They need to support people with blood cancer by giving them clear communications, easy access to booster doses and financial support for those who cannot work from home. This is the best way to save the lives of those who are most vulnerable to Covid, and we hope to see a sense of urgency in giving people the protection they need.”
She advised anyone with blood cancer who tests positive for Covid after a PCR test to contact their hospital treatment team. A new Covid medicines distribution unit has been set up within Whitehall to oversee the distribution of limited antiviral drugs that could help the most vulnerable people.
Fiona Loud, policy director at Kidney Care UK, said that patients had told her that they felt forgotten. “Since shielding ended in the summer, despite the rapid onset of the Omicron variant there has been no additional information for people who are more at risk than there has been for the general public,” she said. “We are concerned that a lack of clarity and a lack of information may leave thousands of people unsure of what to do. It’s not good enough.
“We, along with 12 other leading health charities and 11 parliamentarians, have called for ministerial responsibility for people who are immunocompromised so that there can be coordination between the vaccines, treatment and information provided to keep this group of half a million safe. Ultimately, someone in government should have responsibility for these individuals because too many people feel like they are being ignored and let down.”
A Department of Health and Social Care source said: “On 10 December, NHS England wrote to specialists and GPs with instructions to invite immunosuppressed patients who are eligible for a booster to get their vaccination.
“Communications have already been sent to primary care, secondary care and 119 in relation to the booster programme for the severely immunosuppressed cohort and updates will continue to be shared.”