Ministers were today begged not to reintroduce any Covid-era restrictions amid claims face mask and work from home guidance could be adopted to stop the NHS from meltdown.
Hospitals are buckling under winter demand, soaring rates of flu, staff shortages and bed-blockers. Covid’s resurgence and the emergence of the XBB.1.5 ‘Kraken’ variant could cause even more chaos.
Health chiefs and scientists have already advised adults and pupils to stay at home if they are unwell and to wear masks if they must venture outside when sick. They also called for the booster rollout to be widened in a bid to protect the NHS.
Now ministers are understood to have last-resort plans to advise Britons to wear masks on public transport, WFH and socially distance if the health service ‘is at risk of collapse’.
Critics have, however, hit out at the response, warning the NHS’s annual winter crisis can’t be used as an ‘excuse to reintroduce Covid-era restrictions’. Others said such measures could leave Britons ‘more vulnerable’ to the virus and flu.
People wear face masks on the London Underground today after new advice has been given to curb rising infections as flu and Covid number increase
A commuter wears a face mask on the London Underground today
Two mask-wearers on Nottingham high street today
More mask-wearers on Nottingham high street today
London shoppers wearing face masks in shops on Oxford Street yesterday
Pictured: London shoppers wearing face masks in shops on Oxford Street on January 3
Official sources have suggested that the Government could issue fresh advice for the public to wear face masks on public transport and work from home, if the NHS situation gets worse.
A ‘well-placed’ source told the i that there is a ‘list of potential measures’ under consideration.
However, lockdowns and school closures are not among them and no advice is expected to be mandatory or legally enforceable.
They said: ‘Softer, less intrusive measures could soon be introduced if the NHS is at risk of collapse.
‘While the guidance is for people who are ill to wear face masks if they leave their homes already, it may well be that the wearing of a mask could again be the guidance for all those using public transport.’
A separate government source told the newspaper: ‘We’re not there yet, but guidance for everyone, ill or not, to wear face masks on public transport is not really going to inconvenience people.
‘It would also make perfect sense to ask people who can work from home to do so if the NHS need us all to support them through this busy period of the year.’
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: ‘It is inaccurate to say we are considering implementing any such measures. We are working hard with the NHS to tackle the pressures faced this winter.’
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) this week issued fresh calls for Britons who are unwell to stay at home and wear face coverings if they must venture outdoors.
It also said children who are unwell and have a fever — classed as 38C or more — should stay at home until they feel better.
The advice was backed by Transport Secretary Mark Harper, who previously advocated against Covid restrictions. He said yesterday that it would be ‘very sensible’ for people who have Covid or flu to wear a mask.
However, some Tory MPs have called the advice ‘madness’ and said face coverings make ‘no difference at all to the transmission of a virus’.
And some experts have warned that a Covid-esque response can’t be brought back every winter.
Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show 1.2million had the virus on any given day in the week up to December 9 in England
UK Covid infection data shows 97 people per million tested positive in the week to December 27. For comparison, 2,699 Covid cases per million were confirmed during the peak last winter
Latest Covid daily admission data shows nearly 1,300 people infected with the virus were hospitalised on December 19. The figure is up by a third week-on-week
The number of people infected with Covid taking up beds in wards across England soared above 8,600 on December 21, data shows. The figure has jumped 29 per cent in a week
NHS England data today showed that an average of 63,000 staff were off work every day in the week to Christmas (red line). Around 8,000 of the absences were due to Covid (blue line)
The flu-nami has swept across the NHS in England, the latest round of health service data shows, with over 3,800 admissions for the virus on December 23. Graph shows the number of beds on wards taken up by those with flu (red) and the number of beds occupied due to the virus in critical care (blue)
Ambulance handover delays peaked on December 19 with more than 3,000 patients forced to wait over an hour in the back of an emergency vehicle, unable to be offloaded to a hospital bed
Ambulances parked outside the Royal London hospital in east London today
Emergency vehicles outside the Royal London hospital in east London today
Ambulances wait outside Portsmouth Hospital yesterday due to shortages of rooms
The UK Health Security Agency this week issued fresh calls for Britons who are unwell to stay at home and wear face coverings if they must venture outdoors. They also said children who are unwell and have a fever — classed as 38C or more — to stay at home until they feel better
Professor David Livermore, a microbiologist at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline that the public is more vulnerable to viruses due to prior Covid restrictions and it is a ‘period we have to pass through’.
‘Hiding away again will only delay our immune recovery and make it harder,’ he said.
Professor Livermore said: ‘There is absolutely no good reason to demand the return of masks. They have failed epically.
‘Worse, they cause harm. They impede communication. They impede childhood learning. They create a scurf of poorly degradable street litter.
‘Nor is there good reason to reinstate other restrictions, such as social distancing and WFH.
‘A large part of our present problems is that, through two years of restrictions, we lost our natural equilibrium — of repeated asymptomatic infection and re-boosted immunity — with other pathogens, such as flu, RSV and even Strep A.’
Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, told MailOnline that staying at home when ill and infectious is ‘always good advice’.
He said: ‘But we mustn’t allow the NHS’s annual winter crisis to be used as an excuse to reintroduce Covid-era restrictions.
‘There is no evidence that the latest sub-variant of Omicron is more dangerous and the Chicken Littles warning of disaster have been wrong again and again for 18 months.
‘Rather than demanding behavioural change of the whole population, we should ask why it is only the UK, of the all major economies, that has a healthcare system that collapses every winter and barely functions the rest of the year.
‘The NHS is not the envy of the world. It is a national embarrassment, burning our money and incapable of reform.’
However, some scientists are already urging Britons to follow restrictions similar to those brought in during the pandemic in a bid to lower pressure on the over-stretched health service, warning that the UK has ‘sleepwalked into another avoidable crisis’.
Professor Sam Wilson, a virologist at the University of Glasgow, said ‘taking familiar Covid precautions’ will help limit the spread of Covid.
He told The Guardian: ‘Regardless of the impact of a new variant, the NHS is already under tremendous pressure from a cocktail of different viruses this winter.
‘Where it is possible, taking voluntary steps to reduce transmission — reducing contacts, wearing high-quality masks in crowded indoor spaces, and isolating if you have symptoms — will help reduce the pressure on the NHS.’
Dr Stephen Griffin, an infectious disease expert at the University of Leeds, told MailOnline that he ‘fully endorses’ limiting contacts.
He said: ‘I would advise people to limit contacts wherever possible, working from home if possible, and not mixing at all if feeling unwell.
‘Naturally, not everyone can afford to due a lack of support for isolation at present.
‘Testing is ideal if you can access them, which is more and more difficult nowadays as well.
‘In areas that are poorly ventilated, including most public transport, a well fitted filtering mask is the best protection for you, and for others.’
Dr Griffin said that Omicron variant XBB.1.5, which is fuelling a surge in cases in the US and was behind at least one in 25 UK Covid cases in the week before Christmas, is ‘both highly antibody evasive and more highly transmissible’.
He added: ‘It is growing quickly as a result, but we already have high prevalence from existing viruses which, combined with resurgent influenza, is putting incredible strain on the NHS.
‘These pressures are exposing the brittleness of the NHS infrastructure caused by 12 years of under resourcing.
‘We have yet again sleepwalked into another avoidable crisis.
‘It pains me that the Government are able to accept this, or even pretend that this constitutes “living with” Covid, or any other disease.’
Professor Martin McKee, president at the British Medical Association and public health expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told MailOnline: ‘When the NHS is facing unprecedented pressure from respiratory infections, anything we can do to reduce them makes even more sense than normal.’
Professor Karl Friston, scientific director at the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging, told MailOnline that it is ‘sensible’ to self-isolate and wear masks when unwell or if there is a high risk of transmission.
He noted that the number of contacts people have per day is still 15 per cent lower than pre-pandemic levels. ‘As a population, we are more aware of the dangers of unmitigated viral spread — and how to respond sensibly,’ Professor Friston added.
The NHS crisis has seen patients face record delays in A&E this winter, with some reporting waits of up to four days for a bed, while others are treated in cupboards, corridors, meeting rooms and even outside hospitals.
Doctors have described ‘Dickensian overcrowding’ in emergency departments, with some staff being forced to ask seriously ill patients to monitor their own vital signs.
Last week, one in five ambulance patients in England waited more than an hour to be handed over to A&E teams.
In a bid to boost ‘atrocious’ response times, London Ambulance Service yesterday ordered its teams to leave 999 patients in chairs or trolleys, raising patient safety fears among some medics.
Some hospitals have cancelled all appointments and operations deemed ‘non-urgent’, with leaders warning more will follow suit, and others have reported that they are running out of oxygen.
Some are considering using ‘field hospitals’ with tents to cope with the ‘unprecedented’ influx in patients.
Experts have called for the reopening of Nightingale hospitals, which are staffed by the Army and built during the pandemic but saw little use, to prop up the ailing health service.
Figures from the Sanger Institute, one of the UK’s largest Covid surveillance centres, shows 4 per cent of cases in the week to December 17 were caused by XBB.1.5 (shown in purple, bottom right corner)
December 17 marked the first time XBB.1.5 was listed on the institute’s virus dashboard, which is updated weekly
Dr Adrian Boyle, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said up to 500 patients could be dying each week due to delays in emergency care.
NHS chiefs have warned the crisis could continue until Easter.
The health service has blamed ongoing pressures in part on workforce shortages, with 130,000 vacancies across its entire workforce. On top of this, staff absences are on the rise.
It is also battling a ‘twindemic’ of flu and Covid, with an average of 3,746 flu patients in hospital each day last week — up seven-fold in one month. Around 8,600 Covid patients were taking up beds on December 21, up 84 per cent on last month. Health chiefs warned today that flu and virus cases are expected to keep rising throughout January.
Further adding to the crisis is the fact that 12,000 hospital beds were taken up by ‘bed-blockers’ in the last week.
Demand for A&E has also skyrocketed because of difficulties accessing GPs. One in five patients unable to get an in-person appointment in December turned up at hospitals instead, according to polling by the Liberal Democrats.
On top of these pressures, experts have warned that the Omicron sub-variant XBB.1.5 is set to pile further demand on the health service.
The strain has gained mutations which helps it to bypass Covid-fighting antibodies generated in response to vaccination or previous infection.
Figures from the Sanger Institute, one of the country’s largest Covid surveillance centres, suggests at least 4 per cent of cases in England in the week to December 17 were caused by XBB.1.5.
The situation saw Labour MP Rachael Maskell yesterday call for compulsory isolation for those infected with Covid, saying ‘we need’ those with the virus to stay at home.
Ms Maskell also called for arrivals from China, which is battling its biggest outbreak since the pandemic began, to isolate in the UK if they are infected.
As it stands, those travelling to England must show proof of a negative test taken up to two days before flying.
Some passengers will also be asked to take a voluntary test on arrival at Heathrow to monitor for new variants. But those who test positive will not have to isolate.
Ms Maskell told MailOnline that as well as obliging arrivals from China to quarantine if they test positive, there needed to be a ‘discussion’ about bringing back more widespread isolation.
Isolation for those infected with Covid was ditched under the Government’s ‘Living with Covid’ plan, which sets out actions people can take to reduce the risk of catching the virus and spreading it to others.
But the guidance still advises people who have symptoms of a respiratory infection and a fever to ‘try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people’.
The plan also urges people to get vaccinated and keep up-to-date with the booster doses they are eligible for, as well as ventilate rooms, such as by opening windows and vents.
Britons should also wear masks when in close contact with someone at-risk from Covid and in crowded public spaces with infections are high, the guidance states.
In other health news…
‘I’m in charge of curing the NHS now’: Rishi Sunak unveils blueprint to help tackle the crisis in UK hospitals – in the first major speech of his premiership
Pharmacists ‘to treat more illnesses’ as the government considers handing them greater powers to ease the pressure on waiting times for GPs and A&E
Man suffering from acute appendicitis had to sleep in his CAR outside Scarborough hospital because there were no beds to treat him in
DAILY MAIL COMMENT: Britain has to say no to mandatory masks