The health secretary has unveiled the government’s plan for tackling Covid during autumn and winter in England.
Sajid Javid stated that it included providing booster vaccines to those who were most vulnerable to the virus and increasing vaccine uptake among those who had not previously received the vaccine.
Ministers have also prepared a “Plan B” in case additional measures are required to prevent “unsustainable strain” on the NHS.
This could include requiring people to wear face coverings in certain settings and requiring them to work from home.
But “more harmful economic and social restrictions would only be considered as a last resort”, the government’s winter plan says.
The main defences against Covid under what ministers refer to as “Plan A” include encouraging the unvaccinated to get the vaccine, vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds, and launching a booster programme.
Testing, case tracing, and self-isolation for those infected with the virus would be another important line of defence, Mr Javid said in the Commons.
Businesses are also encouraged to use the NHS Covid Pass to check the vaccination status of their customers.
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Mr Javid also stated that frontline NHS staff and those in broader social care settings will almost certainly be required to have Covid-19 and flu vaccinations in order to be deployed.
The health secretary added that the government would be “keeping an open mind” and waiting for the results of a consultation, but he believed this would be “an important step in protecting those who are most vulnerable.”
He also stated that a “Plan B” had been prepared, with measures “that we can call on only if they are needed and supported by data to prevent unsustainable pressure on the NHS.”
This could include legally mandating face coverings in certain settings, he said, while a vaccine passport system is also being held “in reserve.”
The government anticipates that under Plan B, proof of vaccination would be required for nightclubs, crowded indoor venues with more than 500 attendees, crowded outdoor events with more than 4,000 people, such as festivals, and any setting with more than 10,000 people.
“Any responsible government must prepare for all eventualities, and while these measures are not what anyone wants, they are something we must be prepared for just in case,” Mr Javid told MPs.
There is no single metric that will trigger the implementation of “Plan B” measures, according to Downing Street, but the government will consider a variety of data, including the number of patients in hospital, the trajectory of new cases, and vaccine effectiveness.
At-a-glance: England’s Covid winter plan
- This plan covers England only and ministers say it aims to ensure the NHS “does not come under unsustainable pressure”
- “Plan A” is to continue using pharmaceutical interventions like booster vaccines, antivirals and other drugs to “build our defences”
- Test, trace and isolate rules continue; the NHS and social care receive more money; and there will be better communications
- The UK will also pursue “an international approach” by helping vaccinate the world and manage risks at the border
- But there is also a “Plan B” – which will be activated if the NHS begins to struggle
- It includes urging people to be more cautious; introducing vaccine passports in certain settings; and legally-mandating face coverings in some places
Mr Javid stated that the government would remove more of its powers under the Coronavirus Act, including those directing temporary school closures.
Those who are “critical” to the pandemic response, such as supporting statutory sick pay for those who isolate themselves, will remain.
Mr Javid also stated that rules for international travel would be updated ahead of a formal review point on 1 October, and that PCR tests for fully vaccinated travellers would be phased out in favour of cheaper lateral flow tests.
When asked by Conservative MP Huw Merriman if he would consider switching to lateral flow tests instead, Mr Javid replied, “I don’t want to pre-empt the transport secretary’s statement, but I believe that when he makes that statement, he [Mr Merriman] will be pleased.”
Vaccines are our Plan A
The message from ministers in England is clear: we will try to rely almost entirely on vaccines to keep us safe this winter.
What isn’t stated is how bad things have to get before we have to change course and go to Plan B.
The winter plan cites “unsustainable pressure” on the NHS as the cause, rather than an excess of deaths.
So, what can the NHS handle? That is not stated in the document.
Covid patients currently occupy 7% of all hospital beds. That may not seem like much, but because hospitals are often overcrowded, Covid cases have a quick impact on the other care that can be provided.
The amount of non-emergency treatment provided is already nearly one-fifth of what it should be.
If Covid admissions continue to rise or other respiratory illnesses become more prevalent, there will be more rationing, ranging from delayed knee and hip replacements to people waiting longer for an ambulance.
All of this, however, is nothing out of the ordinary; it happens every winter. However, the scale could be very different.