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Health leaders call for immediate Covid restrictions in England

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Health leaders have called on the government to immediately activate its “Plan B” for coronavirus restrictions in England to avert a winter crisis in the NHS and to avoid undermining efforts to tackle the growing hospital treatment backlog.

The call for ministers to implement Covid-19 contingency plans, including compulsory mask-wearing, vaccine passports and work-from-home orders, follows an increase in case numbers, hospital pressures and Covid-19 mortality figures.

The daily death toll from Covid across the UK reached 223 on Tuesday, the highest since early March, while new cases have exceeded 40,000 a day for the last week and daily hospital admissions are nearing 1,000 for the first time in more than a month.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the healthcare sector, said in a statement: “It is time for the government to enact Plan B of its strategy without delay because without pre-emptive action, we risk stumbling into a winter crisis.”

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“The government should not wait for Covid infections to rocket and for NHS pressures to be sky high before the panic alarm is sounded,” he said, adding that the health service was “preparing for what could be the most challenging winter on record”.

The waiting list for non-urgent operations in England rose to 5.72m patients in August, the highest level since records began in 2007, according to official NHS data.

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Taylor also called on ministers to outline a “Plan C” in case the current contingency plans were “insufficient”.

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, called for the government to “keep a close watch” on the latest Covid data and “act quickly and decisively” if a surge in infections and hospitalisations threatens to overwhelm the health service. “This should include activating “plan B” in the Covid winter plan, if needed.”

She also expressed concern that intensifying hospital pressure “could impact on the NHS’s ability to bear down on the care backlog”. “Trust leaders understand only too well the importance of minimising any delays for planned treatment,” she said. “But if other pressures continue to escalate they will have to take hard decisions about priorities.”

However, Kwasi Kwarteng, business secretary, rejected the need to immediately implement contingency plans, saying ministers do not “feel that it’s the time for Plan B right now”.

He told the BBC on Wednesday morning: “The infection rate was always likely to go up as we opened up the economy, because as people get back to normal life, the infection rate was likely to go up. But what was critically important was the hospitalisation rate and the death rate as well.”

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“We’re simply trying to analyse the data as we see it and come up with the right policies,” he said. “Now that’s something which could change but, at the moment, we think that the course that we’re plotting is the right one.”

The government’s “Plan A” depends on driving vaccine uptake among 12 to 15-year-olds and rolling out booster shots to eligible groups, including the over-50s and healthcare workers.

However, both rollouts have been criticised for their sluggish speed, with ministers and NHS leaders promising to speed up the process.

At a meeting of the House of Commons health select committee on Tuesday, Jeremy Hunt, committee chair and former health secretary, lamented that the daily vaccination rate had fallen from 400,000 jabs a day in spring to fewer than 200,000. “Yet, we’ve got the highest case rate and the highest death rate in Europe” with the potential for “a real crisis in the winter ahead”, he said.

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