There are currently 2.2 million people identified as clinically extremely vulnerable. Officials said all these people – and their doctors- should now receive a letter explaining the changes to the guidance .
People were classed as clinically vulnerable in a range of situations, such as if they were undergoing treatment for cancer, were immunosuppressed, or suffering from conditions such as cystic fibrosis.
Officials said the basic list is unchanged, but that GPs will be expected to contact anyone thought to be clinically extremely vulnerable, which could include other factors such as obesity.
Health officials said the previous system of shielding, while successful in keeping people home, had been a “blunt tool” which did some harm.
They said too many people “felt imprisoned” by the previous advice, which was taken by many to be an order.
Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England Dr Jenny Harries said: “Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a sharp increase in the prevalence of the virus across the country and we know those who are clinically extremely vulnerable are looking for practical advice on how they can carry on their lives while the virus remains in our communities.
“The new system will provide clarity on how best those in this group can keep themselves as safe as possible, depending on the rates of transmission in their local area. Whilst advisory, I would urge all those affected to follow the guidance wherever they can and to continue to access health services for their medical conditions.
“We will continue to monitor the evidence closely and fine-tune this approach to make sure everyone in this group is clear about the safest way to go about their daily lives, particularly over the coming winter months.”
Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: “With coronavirus rates continuing to increase, now is the time to take action and ensure we protect the most vulnerable in our society.
“Today’s announcement will mean every person most at risk from serious outcomes from the virus will have specific advice targeted to local levels, which they can follow to keep themselves as safe as possible, while ensuring they can also keep as much normality in their lives as possible.”
The clinically extremely vulnerable group includes those with conditions affecting the immune system, certain cancers and organ transplant recipients.
Officials said those in exceptionally high-risk areas may still be advised to adopt formal shielding in the future, but this would require a specific order from the Chief Medical Officer.
If this advice is reintroduced in their area, they would be eligible for a support package, such as food parcels and medicine deliveries.