Covid plan B: Councils break from government to bring back masks and home-working

‘It is time now we take additional steps locally to prevent a winter crisis,’ says one local health official

Zoe Tidman
Saturday 23 October 2021 11:56
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<p>The government has resisted calls to put Plan B measures into place</p>

The government has resisted calls to put Plan B measures into place

Local councils have told residents to follow tougher Covid measures than national rules as the government resists calls to put plan B contingency plan into place amid rising infections.

Authorities across the country have urged people in their area to work from home and reimpose mask-wearing in schools to tackle the spread of Covid.

Residents in Liverpool, Windsor and Suffolk are among those who have been told by local public health teams to follow stricter measures amid concerns over Covid rates.

Earlier this week, the UK recorded more than 50,000 cases in a single day for the first time since July, while average daily Covid hospital admissions in England rose to their highest level for nearly eight months.

The government has so far resisted calls from NHS bosses to implement Plan B, a stricter set of Covid measures to tackle coronavirus which includes compulsory mask wearing and an appeal to work from home.

But local councils have been taking action amid the surge in cases and fears of a winter crisis.

Liverpool City Council has advised residents to work from home where they can, while secondary school pupils are told to wear face masks in communal areas in schools, with the exception of classrooms.

“With Covid-19 infections steadily increasing, and health and social care services already under exceptional pressure, we are facing a very difficult winter,” Matthew Ashton, the local director of public health, said.

“We are also expecting that there may be high levels of flu around before Christmas.”

He added: “It is time now that we take additional steps locally to prevent a winter crisis, so that we can keep our critical services going.”

Also this week, headteachers in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead were told to bring back masks in communal areas and reduce mixing of pupils.

“We strongly advise that head teachers implement these enhanced measures, over and above current government guidance, as soon as is practicable,” local public health officials said.

Bolton Council urged schools to consider stricter Covid measures from the start of this week, including the wearing of face masks inside for pupils in Year 7 and above, as well as virtual assemblies.

Schools in Walsall have also been advised to consider bringing back face masks for older students in communal areas, and for the reintroduction of “bubbles” - where children are kept in groups to limit mixing with others - in younger years.

Stephen Gunther, the director of public health for Walsall, said: “With cases of Covid-19 high again in Walsall - including those in the under-19 age groups – we think now is the time for schools to bring back Covid secure measures.”

Suffolk Council also told schools this week to have pupils and staff wearing face masks onsite.

The government says local public health directors may advise schools to “temporarily reintroduce” stricter measures if there is a “substantial increase” in Covid cases in its setting or they are in local areas targeted for extra support.

Other councils, including Devon and Cornwall, and individual schools across the country have already asked pupils to wear face coverings in schools this term.

The Independent previously reported on schools imposing their own stricter test-and-trace system in a bid to limit outbreaks.

Sajid Javid, the health secretary, said on Wednesday there were no plans to put Plan B into place “at the moment, saying pressures on the NHS were not yet “unsustainable”.

Boris Johnson has also said numbers were “high” but within the parameters” forecast by scientists advising the government as he resisted calls for tougher Covid rules.

One local council’s lead member for health said he was “really frustrated” to hear the government was not planning on tightening measures nationally.

“We will soon enter the winter period which is always a challenging time for the most vulnerable members of our community and for our health and care workers,” added Mike Bell, the deputy leader of North Somerset Council.

“I would much rather action is taken now to protect people before case rates spiral and people become ill, and to ease the winter pressures on our hard-working care and health services.”

The World Health Organisation has warned that the vaccine alone will not be able to lift the world out of the pandemic.

“We really have to do other measures,” spokesperson Margaret Harris told Times Radio on Saturday.

“We have got to be serious about not crowding. We have still got to be looking at wearing the masks, when you’re indoors particularly.”

Mr Javid urged the public this week to follow guidance over wearing face masks in crowded spaces.

A Department for Education spokesperson said protective measures in school “strike a balance” between managing transmission risk, including with regular Covid testing and vaccines for older staff and students, and reducing disruption “by removing the need for close contacts in bubbles to self-isolate and for face coverings to be worn in most cases.”

A government spokesperson said “we always knew the coming months would be challenging which is why we set out our plan for autumn and winter last month”.

They said the vaccination programme “has significantly weakened the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths” and will keeping being the “first line of defence” against Covid. The spokesperson also urged those eligible to get a booster jab.

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