Some Covid restrictions must be reintroduced immediately if England is to avoid “tripping over a winter crisis,” health leaders have warned.
The NHS Confederation said the ministers’ Plan B support strategy, including mandatory face coverings in crowded and enclosed spaces, should be implemented.
Cases in the UK are on the rise, but deaths are well below the winter peak.
The government says it has “absolutely no plans” for further measures, but is keeping a “very close eye” on the data.
Daily Covid cases exceeded 40,000 for seven consecutive days, with 43,738 new infections reported Tuesday.
A further 223 deaths have been recorded, the highest since March, although daily figures are often largest on Tuesdays.
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The government’s Plan A to tackle Covid in England this winter is currently in place: with booster vaccines offered to around 30 million people, a single dose of the vaccine available for healthy children aged 12 to 15 and people recommended to wear face covers in crowded places.
If these measures aren’t enough to prevent “unsustainable pressure” on the NHS, then steps like making face coverings mandatory in some settings, asking people to work from home, and introducing vaccine passports could be considered part of Plan B.
Matthew Taylor, head of the NHS Confederation, which represents health services organizations, is urging the government to implement these extra measures to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.
“The NHS is preparing for what could be the busiest winter on record,” he said.
“It is time for the government to implement Plan B of its strategy without delay, because without preventive action, we risk stumbling into a winter crisis.”
Ministers “should not wait for Covid infections to explode and for NHS pressures to skyrocket before panic alarms are sounded,” he added.
Unsurprisingly, the leaders of the NHS warn of a very busy time with the risk of a “winter crisis”.
Some may think this is a familiar refrain and that the health service often raises concerns before winter.
But the significance of this NHS Confederation intervention is that it came just hours after Downing Street had ruled out Plan B at this stage and claimed it had not been discussed by the government.
The confederation, in effect, is contesting ministers by suggesting that the government’s key test for implementing Plan B in England – the likelihood of the NHS being under unsustainable pressure – has already been met.
Concerns about the pace of the launch of the vaccine booster program and a steady increase in Covid cases and the number of hospitals have left some amber lights flashing.
Ministers will argue that more time is needed to evaluate the data before making big decisions about the restrictions affecting daily life.
But they acknowledged that they will now keep “a very close eye” on the case numbers.
The NHS Confederation has also called for a package of additional measures to support frontline services, what it calls a “Plan B plus”. This could include encouraging people to get vaccinated, show up for appointments on time, and even volunteer to support the NHS.
His request came after Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the government on Tuesday that the UK is facing “a difficult winter”.
His spokesperson said there were “no plans” to use the Plan B emergency measures, but added, “We are clearly keeping an eye on the rise in case rates.”
The most important message to the public was “the vital importance of the recall program and indeed for those children who are eligible to step forward and get our jab,” the spokesperson said.
The seven-day average of new Covid cases in the UK went from around 34,000 per day in early October to 44,145 cases per day.
And the number of people in hospital across the UK who have Covid has increased by 10% in one week, from 7,039 on 11 October to 7,749 on Monday.
The number of deaths within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test reported on Tuesday was the highest since March 9, although due to delays in reporting over the weekend, daily figures are often higher than on Tuesday.
Northern Ireland announced its plan for fall and winter on Tuesday, which will see face coverings remain a legal requirement in crowded indoor spaces.
The Welsh government has already set its plans for the winter, with Prime Minister Mark Drakeford saying Christmas this year is likely to be more normal.
Scotland has left a winter vaccination strategy and already has measures such as compulsory proof of vaccination status in night clubs and masks in schools.
Meanwhile, officials say they are monitoring a new offspring of Covid’s Delta variant, which is causing an increasing number of infections.
Downing Street said “there is no evidence to suggest it spreads more easily.”
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