Leaders of nurses’, doctors’ and health service organisations have criticised the Government’s decision to end all COVID restrictions from 19 July.
RCN acting chief executive and general secretary, Pat Cullen, said: ‘This disease [did] not disappear on 19 July and pressure will continue to be placed on all health and care services in the UK.
‘Public mask-wearing is straightforward and well-established – Government will rue the day it sent the wrong signal for political expediency.’
Among thousands of doctors responding to a BMA survey, 9 out of 10 said face coverings should remain mandatory, especially in healthcare settings and on public transport. Support for sticking to social distancing measures was also strong.
Speaking ahead of the Government announcement on so-called ‘freedom day’,Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA Council chair, said: ‘If the Prime Minister does not continue to make mask wearing mandatory, we will see a sustained and even steeper rise in infection rates across the summer and beyond. We have soaring infection rates – the highest in Europe and simply expecting people to wear [a mask] is not good enough.’
RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall said: ‘GPs and our teams are already working under intense workload and workforce pressures, making record numbers of patient consultations as well as delivering around two thirds of the COVID vaccination programme. In the face of rising case numbers, we need clarity on how GPs should be expected to prioritise their workload and ensure effective infection control in primary care settings – as well as what the advice is for patients who have symptoms that may be COVID.’
Launching a campaign #NotTooMuchTo Mask, The NHS Confederation, which represents NHS trusts and PCNs, warned: ‘There is a real risk that dropping the restrictions including to wear masks, especially in health care settings and to socially distance will lead to a significant COVID-19 surge which will place even more strain on a system struggling to cope. Primary care is delivering services at a level we would expect in January, not July. ‘The Government itself is already warning of 100,000 COVID-19 cases a day in the coming weeks, and new numbers from SAGE predict 1,000 hospitalisations a day.’
The BMA has described the Government’s announcement that double-vaccinated staff will not have to self-isolate for work if they are ‘pinged’ as a ‘desperate and potentially unsafe policy’.
BMA Council Chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: ’The Government’s current public infection control strategy is not working, it is leading to rocketing case numbers with more illness in the community, more people in hospital and more people having to isolate. It is time for an urgent rethink, rather than staying on the same course. Exempting healthcare staff from self-isolation to get them back to work is a desperate and potentially unsafe policy that does not address the root problem. People go to see healthcare professionals in order to get better, not to risk getting infected, and staff should not fear transmission of the virus from their own colleagues.’
Government guidance states that returning staff must take daily lateral flow tests after an initial negative PCR test and should only return to work under ‘exceptional circumstances’. Decisions to allow staff to attend work should be made on a case by case basis, after a risk assessment by the employer, and returning staff should wear PPE ‘properly’ throughout the day, and not work with clinically extremely vulnerable patients. They will be required to continue to self-isolate outside work.