Covid fifth wave: Hospitals bring back masks on wards just weeks after rules relaxed

Covid waves are likely to have a ‘deleterious’ impact on hospital waiting times, warns senior medic

Rebecca Thomas
Health Correspondent
Thursday 30 June 2022 09:36 BST
Jeremy Vine catches Covid and calls for shielding to return

Hospitals are bringing back requirements for masks on wards just weeks after rules were relaxed as Covid rates spike, The Independent can reveal.

Experts have warned of a surge in cases, believed to be the fifth wave, with one in 40 people in the UK testing positive for the virus.

Meanwhile, latest NHS data shows more than 8,000 Covid-positive patients on wards following a warning of a “deleterious” impact on hospital waiting times

In response, three major hospital trusts have told staff they must wear masks, with warnings more must follow if the NHS is to handle another wave of Covid.

In June NHS England, following guidance from the UK Health Security Agency, advised hospitals and GP practices that masks were no longer a necessary requirement, while hospitals in Wales dropped the rules in May.

The spike in cases on wards has prompted at least seven hospitals across England to U-turn on masks on-site for staff as of Tuesday.

Cases in hospitals across England increased by more than one-third and community infections soared to 1.7 million last week.

Latest NHS data showed the number of patients with Covid in hospitals across England jumped from 1,011 on Saturday to 1,276 the next day, while the number of hospital beds taken up by positive patients hit 8,120.

Large Summer events such as Glastonbury could have a big impact on rates, it has been warned, after 1.7 million people were reported to have had Covid last week.

Dr Tim Cooksley, president of the Society for Acute Medicine told The Independent: “Over the past 2 years Covid has highlighted and exacerbated what was an already growing crisis.

“High staff absence levels, burn-out and low morale have dominated staff landscapes during this time and continue to do so. Future waves and potentially large numbers of upcoming flu cases will only serve to deepen these problems making the hopes of patients, clinicians and politicians alike of elective recovery seem somewhat fanciful.

“Sajid Javid commented last week that there are no short-term fixes to the current challenges. This is non-controversial. However, with current crisis levels and further Covid waves likely to have further deleterious consequences on waiting times and patient experience; it is essential that the investment in workforce and capacity begins now to prevent a further deepening of the crisis. Worsening from the current position is a frightening thought.”

Cambridge University Hospitals Foundation Trust, which has two sites, told staff on Monday masks must now be worn in all patient facing areas “with Covid rising in the local community and hospitals”.

The trust confirmed it has 158 staff off with Covid and 62 patients with the virus across its hospitals – up from 37 on 13 June.

North West Anglia NHS Foundation Trust which covers three hospitals, has also reinstated mask wearing rules over an increased Covid risk, while Torbay and South Devon Hospitals asked patients on Tuesday to begin wearing masks after dropping the requirement on the 10 June.

Health authorities in Wales have reintroduced masks for staff and visitors “with immediate effect” after the requirement was dropped in May.

On Friday NHS Lothian in Scotland asked patients to begin wearing masks again after it warned one-fifth of nursing staff were off sick due to Covid.

Analysis by Dr Tom Lawton, intensive care consultant and anaesthetist, shared with The Independent shows between 70 and 100 patients accross some trusts are likely to have caught Covid in hospital in the last 28 days.

The Clinically Vulnerable Families group, which represents patients across the country, told The Independent a poll of their members revealed hundreds said they would reconsider getting their treatment in hospital due to increased Covid risks.

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics showed a total of 264 deaths from Covid-19 were recorded in the seven days to 17 June, slightly down from 284 the week prior. Deaths figures are yet to increase, however on Monday the Covid Actuaries Response Group said deaths from Covid would likely increase.

Dr Helen Salisbury, from the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, told The Independent she could not see the logic in healthcare providers dropping requirements to wear masks and warned it presented a risk to those most vulnerable.

She added: “Masks reduce infection ... if you increase the rate of infection, you have more staff or it becomes more and more difficult to run your hospital if your staff get infected and have to stop work.”

The warning comes as the public inquiry into Covid-19, chaired by Baroness Hallet, was formally launched by the government on Tuesday.

A spokesperson for CUH said:“Our position from the outset has been one of caution, monitoring and responding to changing community infection rates and the number of Covid-positive inpatients to keep our patients, staff and visitors safe. For that reason everyone, including patients, is asked to wear a mask in clinical areas. This currently does not include non-clinical areas such as the main reception, concourse, dining areas and corridors.”

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