Covid plan B rules are scrapped — but NHS chief warns virus hasn’t ‘magically disappeared’

‘The government will regret sending the wrong signal for political expediency’, says nursing chief

Rebecca Thomas
Health Correspondent
Wednesday 19 January 2022 19:59
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220119 End To Face Masks

Face masks won’t be required from next week and work-from-home advice is ending immediately after the prime minister announced the end of plan B rules in England.

The legal duty to self-isolate with Covid-19 will also lapse from 24 March, Mr Johnson said, “just as we don’t place legal obligations on people to isolate if they have flu.”

Face coverings will be scrapped in classrooms from this Thursday, with school communal areas to follow.

The bonfire of Covid rules came after ONS data showed Covid-19 cases were falling in most parts of England and after government scientists judged the Omicron variant had “now peaked nationally”.

But scrapping Covid measures “will do nothing to relieve the pressure” on hospitals and the virus hasn’t “magically disappeared,” nursing and NHS leaders warned.

The NHS is still battling extreme pressures such as high levels of staff sickness, record-length delays in emergency care and a growing backlog that has left six million on waiting lists.

The nation’s care watchdog, the Care Quality Commission, expressed particular concern over emergency departments and ambulance services.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents hospitals, said ministers needed to “be honest with the public that a decision to lift restrictions is a trade-off”.

He said: “Covid-19 has not magically disappeared, and we are likely to have to learn to live alongside it for years to come. Lifting restrictions doesn’t mean a return to normality is inevitable.

“We will have greater freedoms but the cost – at least in the short term – will be that more people are likely to get sick with Covid, and that the health service will continue to have to deal with the extra burdens that this creates.”

Pat Cullen, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said loosening restrictions “will do nothing to relieve the pressure on the NHS” and that ministers “will regret sending the wrong signal to the public for political expediency”.

“With so many Covid-19 patients still in hospital, it would be very premature to conclude this wave is over,” she said. “That is not what our members are telling us.”

Latest NHS figures show there are 16,218 patients with Covid-19 in hospitals across England – down from 10 January when 17,120 were recorded in hospital. Meanwhile, admissions to hospitals in the northeast, Yorkshire and the northwest continued to rise this week.

Aris Katzourakis, an expert virologist at the University of Oxford, said: “While there are some encouraging signs, it is not yet entirely clear that it is safe to do so right now without risking further resurgence of the virus.

“It seems a premature decision based on where we are now with case numbers and the stresses on the NHS.”

Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said: “The UK will have a long backlog of consequences to address that have emerged from previous decision-making, but there may at least be a component of looking forward, rather than back.

“This includes the huge waiting list for both urgent and routine healthcare, that could not be addressed before due to the consequences of ‘too much covid’.”

The ONS data shows that one in 20 people in private households in England – about 3 million – is estimated to have had coronavirus in the week to 15 January, down from 3.7 million in the week to 6 January.

In Scotland, around one in 20, or 236,000 people, is estimated to have had Covid-19 last week, down from 297,400.

For Northern Ireland, the latest estimate is also one in 20, but the number of people testing positive is up slightly from 99,200 to 104,300, with the ONS describing the trend there as “uncertain”.

Meanwhile, in Wales, the estimate is one in 25, or 112,100 people, down from 169,100.

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