Eight million people with underlying health conditions should be exempted from plans to get the country back to work and “normal” life, scientists have warned.
The academics said that easing lockdown too quickly could propel the Covid-19 death toll to 73,000 this year.
The researchers, from University College London, said that about 80% of the population have little to fear from a return to work.
But they estimate that as many as 20% are vulnerable from one or more common conditions such as diabetes, obesity and heart problems.
The study, published this week in the Lancet, says that most of those are not considered clinically extremely vulnerable by the Department of Health.
If they were, they would be instructed to “shield” entirely for 12 weeks.
Health officials at NHS England originally said the shielding list included 1.5 million people. That number has now been increased to 2.5 million across the UK.
Dr Amitava Banerjee from the UCL Institute of Health Informatics, who led the study, said the government is “only ever talking about the extremely vulnerable – they are rare in the population, whereas these diseases we are looking at are some of the commonest chronic diseases.”
He added: “If we are going to start getting out of lockdown, we need clearer guidelines – definitely for this group. I could not find this high-risk group in the 50-page document. If a man is under 70 and has diabetes or heart disease or kidney disease, which is a substantial proportion of the population, we need a clear message that nothing has changed.
“We all know people at work who have these conditions. It is a given. These are exactly the people who we need to give clear guidance to.”