Ministers plan for new restrictions within weeks as Covid rates in young adults hit record level

Under Cabinet Office plans, social distancing and mask-wearing could be reimposed if hospitals face ‘unsustainable pressure’

Samuel Lovett
Science Correspondent
Friday 23 July 2021 17:15
Coronavirus in numbers

The coronavirus infection rate in young people has reached the highest for any age group since the pandemic began as the government drafts contingency plans to bring back restrictions within weeks.

In the seven days before Covid restrictions were lifted, 1,154.7 infections per 100,000 people were recorded among those aged 20 to 29, according to Public Health England, with cases rising across every age group and region of the country. Weekly hospitalisations are also at their highest since early March.

Officials in the Covid-19 taskforce have been drawing up proposals that could see baseline measures, such as mask-wearing, social distancing and guidance on working from home, reintroduced in England by next month.

The taskforce is exploring the possibility of implementing the restrictions on a local, regional or national basis.

Labour said the emergence of plans to reintroduce measures, “just days” after they were scrapped, pointed to the government’s “hopeless competence”, adding that “they should have listened to our calls to keep protections in place”.

The decision whether to reimpose measures will be based partly on the level of pressure on NHS trusts and hospitals as a result of rising admissions, sources said.

As demand grows, there have been reports of patients waiting in ambulances overnight for a hospital bed this week, while the care watchdog warned on Wednesday of an “exceptional” level of demand.

A Whitehall source said the baseline measures would be introduced only as a last resort, while a Downing Street insider insisted there was no intention to return to a hard lockdown or circuit-breaker.

All forms of modelling carried out by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) point to a significant rise in hospitalisations from the end of summer, The Independent has been told. In the worst-case scenario, this could amount to 2,000 hospital admissions a day by mid-August.

One scientific adviser said the plans to reintroduce restrictions was typical of No 10’s handling of the pandemic.

“It perfectly fits the previous pattern in previous waves – first ignore the problems and deny action is needed, then realise there is a problem and tell people it is up to them to act, then, belatedly, impose greater restrictions than would have been needed if one acted early,” the adviser said.

Other Sage members have reportedly warned prime minister Boris Johnson that restrictions will be needed from the first week of August if hospitalisations rise above expected levels.

Home office minister Victoria Atkins meanwhile said on Wednesday that the government “reserves the right” to reimpose coronavirus restrictions in England, insisting that Covid-19 “moves in unpredictable ways”.

This comes despite promises from the PM, made earlier in the year, that the lifting of measures would be “irreversible”. He later admitted that some restrictions may need to return if England’s epidemic worsened.

As previously reported by The Independent, the contingency plans being drafted by the Covid-19 taskforce could also be implemented in winter, when infections are once again expected to surge alongside a rise in other respiratory illness, such as flu.

Earlier this month, Professor Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, told cabinet ministers that the UK is set to face a difficult winter.

Despite the success of the UK’s vaccine rollout, Covid hospitalisations in the four nations have already begun to return to alarming levels, as the virus seeks out unvaccinated and partially protected individuals.

Those being admitted are typically younger, while significant improvements in treatments have also helped to reduce the amount of time being spent by Covid patients in hospital.

Nonetheless, the demand for care has placed immense strain on hospital services across the country, with health officials warning of a deepening summer crisis that has been fuelled by rising infections, pressure from the ongoing heatwave and the return of thousands of workers to offices.

More than half of staff at one NHS trust are absent because of Covid-19 isolation rules, forcing operations to be cancelled, The Independent reported this week.

The number of Covid patients in England is meanwhile continuing to rise. The chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, told a Downing Street press conference on Monday that he expected the NHS to see 1,000 patients a day being admitted to hospital soon.

PHE data shows that the weekly hospitalisation rate stands at 5.88 people per 100,000 of the population – the highest figure since the week ending 7 March.

There are now more infections, admissions and deaths being recorded across the UK compared to the same time last year.

On 18 July 2021 – the most recent date included on the government’s Covid dashboard – 788 people were hospitalised with Covid; a year before, 105 patients were admitted. On 22 July, 84 Covid deaths were reported; a year before, this figure stood at 17.

Professor Gabriel Scally, an expert in public health at the University of Bristol, said the government’s latest contingency plans indicated that there “is no real strategy to tackle the virus”.

“We need to grow up to tackle this virus,” he said. “The government is a one-trick pony. All they do is produce plans to end restrictions and then announce emergency action to reimpose restrictions.

Professor Paul Hunter, an expert in health protection and infectious diseases at the University of East Anglia, said it was difficult to know at this stage whether measures would need to be brought back, adding that the government had made the right decision in lifting restrictions on Monday.

“It depends on how rapid hospitalisations are increasing,” he said. “If you know what the cases are doing now, you can predict pretty much how many are going to be in the hospitals in two weeks’ time.

“But predicting what’s going to be happening with the cases in a months’ time, we just don’t know. And the modelling is all over the place.

“We’ll know in about three weeks whether we’ve screwed up not. But I think we haven’t. We might even see a decrease in cases. But that’s wishful thinking.”

Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, called on the PM to “get a grip”. “Ministers mix messages, change approach and water down proposals, now leaving us facing a summer of chaos,” he said. “The government recklessly opened up at the expense of public health.”

A government spokesperson highlighted Downing Street’s five-step plan for managing the virus and said it was “responsible” for officials to be “prepared to respond to unexpected events as the country learns to live with Covid-19.

“It is both right and sensible that we maintain contingency plans for reimposing restrictions at a local, regional or national level if evidence suggests they are necessary.

“As set out in guidance, we will continue to monitor the data on a regular basis to ensure there is no danger of the NHS facing unsustainable pressure.”

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