UK government paves the way for tough ‘plan B’ Covid rules

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New evidence has emerged that the government is leading the way in implementing ‘Plan B’ measures in England to tackle the spread of Covid-19, amid warnings from health chiefs that a ‘vortex of pressures ”circles the NHS.

The clearest sign to date that Whitehall is actively considering further action, the Observer has learned that the British Health Security Agency (UKHSA) contacted local authorities on Friday to gauge their level of support for “the immediate deployment of the winter plan – plan B”.

The disclosure comes as senior medics warn operations are already being canceled due to NHS staff shortages and scientists warn of a ‘triple whammy’ of respiratory disease this winter, with Covid, flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which causes cold symptoms, but can be serious in children and the elderly.

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Boris Johnson has so far publicly resisted suggestions that he should order the implementation of Plan B, a menu of measures that includes the use of vaccine passports in high-risk locations and mass gatherings, as well as the legal obligation to use face masks in certain settings.

However, in a note labeled “official – sensitive”, the agency said it was urgently seeking the views of CEOs and board leaders to be conveyed directly to the Cabinet Office. “It’s a tight turnaround as you can appreciate and so a response at the end of the game would be really helpful,” he said.

A UKHSA spokesperson said he would not comment on the leaks, adding: “It is part of the UKHSA’s role to provide advice to the government on the ongoing response to the pandemic. A government spokesperson said: “We are closely monitoring all data, and the Prime Minister has made it clear that he is not yet showing that Plan B is needed. But he is ready if we are to act to avoid an increase in hospitalizations that would put unbearable pressure on the NHS. “

Downing Street is still hopeful that an accelerated recall jab program can push back the need for further action.

The Prime Minister on Saturday issued a desperate call to arms so that all people over 50 receive a booster shot when offered one. “Vaccines are our way through this winter,” Johnson said. “We have made phenomenal progress but our work is not yet finished, and we know that vaccine protection can decline after six months. To ensure your safety, the safety of your loved ones and everyone around you, please obtain your reminder when you receive the call.

“This is a call to everyone, whether you are eligible for a booster, have not yet received your second dose, or your child is eligible for a dose – vaccines are safe, they save lives and they are our way. get out of this pandemic. “

44,985 other cases of Covid were reported on Saturday, more than 4,000 fewer than the day before. 135 other deaths have been reported in England. It came as one of the government’s science advisers said he feared another ‘Christmas lockdown’. Professor Peter Openshaw, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said putting action now to “reduce transmission rates” was key to having “a wonderful Family Christmas where we can all get together again ”.

Matthew Taylor, Director General of the NHS Confederation. Photography: Teri Pengilley/The Guardian

Despite ministerial claims that thousands of beds remain available in the NHS, senior doctors said operations were already canceled. Dr Stephen Webb, President of the Intensive Care Society, said: “In many places, scheduled urgent surgery that needs to be done is being canceled. It’s not because of a lack of physical beds, it’s because of a lack of staff to be able to open those beds. We heard about the cancellation of urgent cardiac surgery, major bowel surgery, because these patients need post-operative intensive care beds. It’s not just in one or two areas – it’s across the country.

NHS officials have warned that pressures from Covid are adding to staff issues, efforts to deal with surgical backlogs, long waits in emergency departments and hardship caused by other infections. “It’s a whole bunch of issues coming together, forming a vortex of pressure,” said Saffron Cordery, deputy managing director of NHS Providers. “What Covid has done has exacerbated these challenges and added additional things. “

Matthew Taylor, the Confederation’s chief executive of the NHS, who has previously called for Plan B measures, said: “You [the government] must recognize that we need a national mobilization. You need to recognize that there is a health and care crisis coming over the next three or four months and accept it, recognize it and encourage the public to do whatever they can to help. We may just have to get used to the fact that the recall campaign has to take place every six months and prepare for it, so I’m glad the government has stepped up the message there. “

A seasoned scientist also warned the nation was facing “a triple whammy” of respiratory disease this winter. Along with Covid and the flu comes the threat of illness triggered by RSV, one of the most common causes of coughs and colds in winter. For most people, the infection causes mild respiratory illness, but in the very young and the elderly, RSV infections can trigger serious illnesses such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia and can lead to hospitalization and even death. .

“We had very few – almost no cases – of RSV last year and that’s a concern,” said virologist Professor David Matthews of the University of Bristol. “Immunity against RSV only lasts a few years after previous infections. Due to the lockdown, RSV rates were very low in the UK last winter. This means that there is very little immunity to RSV left in the population. For good measure, there is no vaccine against RSV to protect against the disease.

The country is now highly vulnerable to RSV infections, Matthews said. “This is a real concern because infections are very capable of putting both the elderly and the very young in the hospital and right now we probably have very little immunity to the disease.

“With the flu and Covid-19, we are facing a triple whammy this winter, which could have a grim impact on the NHS. It is extremely worrying. This is another reason why we need to minimize cases of Covid and get vaccinations – boosters and for children – to as many people as possible. “

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