Health leaders have called on the British government to introduce ‘Plan B’ measures to avoid a COVID-19 crisis this winter.
The government set out its winter strategy for the coronavirus pandemic in September, which included a plan for enacting extra measures if its national health service became overwhelmed.
On Tuesday evening the NHS Confederation warned the government needed to take “preemptive action” amid “worrying increases in coronavirus cases in its hospital and the community”.
According to government statistics, more than 43,000 people tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, with cases exceeding 40,000 each day for the last week.
Cases haven’t been so high in the UK since July, and although the vaccination campaign appears to be keeping hospitalisations and deaths much lower than in previous periods of the pandemic, health leaders are warning action should be taken as the NHS prepares for “what could be the most challenging winter on record”.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation said: “It is time for the Government to enact Plan B of its strategy without delay because without preemptive action, we risk stumbling into a winter crisis.”
He added a ‘Plan C’ should be considered should the Plan B measures be insufficient.
The UK government’s current plan for the winter, in which seasonal illnesses such as flu are expected to add to the pressure on the NHS, includes giving COVID vaccine booster jabs, rolling out the biggest ever flu jab campaign, and supporting the NHS with more financial backing.
The Plan B, which was outlined by health secretary Sajid Javid in September, would be rolled out if unsustainable pressure was being put on the NHS.
It includes legally mandating face coverings in certain settings, vaccine passes in certain settings, and asking people to work from home for a limited time.
“The Government should not wait for Covid infections to rocket and for NHS pressures to be sky high before the panic alarm is sounded,” insisted Matthew Taylor.
“As cases of coronavirus continue to climb, alongside other demands on the health service and pressure on staff capacity in both the NHS and social care, leaders are worried about what could be around the corner.
“There is a crucial opportunity for the public to pull together and show extra support for the NHS by behaving in ways that will keep themselves and others safe and also safeguard stretched frontline services for those most in need.”
Some experts have said another lockdown may be necessary to get cases down in the UK, but on Wednesday morning business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky News he “would rule that out”.
The rocketing case numbers in the UK have been attributed to the amount of testing taking place, but also to the UK’s relatively relaxed measures compared to other European countries.
The number of large indoor events without the need for a vaccine passport has increased, and compulsory mask-wearing in England ended in July.
Scotland has introduced a vaccine passport scheme for nightclubs and large events since October 1, enforceable by law. Yet coronavirus cases there also remain high.
Some 15% of Britons never wear a mask, compared to around 5% among their European neighbours, according to a YouGov survey in mid-October.
Even on public transport in London, where masks remain compulsory, the rule is ignored by a high proportion of passengers.