Friday 22 October 2021
Covid cases are rising fast in the UK, and the government is under pressure to take steps to slow them down. Is it time for the government to turn to Plan B?
Nimo Omer, narrating:
Hi, I’m Nimo and this is the Sensemaker.
One story, everyday, to make sense of the world.
The number of Covid cases is rising sharply.
“The daily number of Covid cases in the UK has topped 50,000 for the first time since July.”BBC News, Radio 4
England’s health secretary has warned the figure could soon rise to 100,000.
So, today I’m asking: how worried should we really be — and is it time for a Plan B to combat Covid.
The message from health experts to the politicians is clear: more needs to be done to get Covid under control and it needs to be done quickly.
If we don’t, more people will fall ill and more people will die. And the NHS will struggle:
“The health service is facing a perfect storm. It is the fact that winter is always tough for the health service. It’s the fact that we have got thousands of COVID patients in hospital. And we’ve also got the huge pent-up demand that’s built up over the last 18 months.”Matthew Taylor, Sky News
That’s Matthew Taylor of The NHS Confederation, the umbrella group which represents the health service in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
His message to our political leaders is clear: act now to stave off a winter crisis.
He thinks England should be moving to adopt the ‘plan B’ winter guidance that England’s health secretary, Sajid Javid, outlined earlier in the autumn.
Plan B would involve mandatory face coverings, vaccine passports for large gatherings and fresh guidance on working from home.
It wouldn’t be a full lockdown – it’d be more like what’s already happening in Scotland and Wales where they’ve got vaccine passports and stricter rules on wearing masks.
Matthew Taylor is calling for another layer of protection: a “plan B plus” with extra guidelines to keep the NHS on its feet.
“We’re calling on the government to urge a national mobilization behind our health and care system to recognise the inevitability of an incredibly difficult few months ahead.”Matthew Taylor, Sky News
But not all politicians are on the same page as him. Sajid Javid says he won’t ramp up restrictions yet:
“We’re looking closely at the data and we won’t be implementing our plan B of contingency measures at this point.”Sajid Javid, ITV news
So is he right not to introduce new measures? Or are we risking another winter crisis?
There are signs that this winter could play out differently to the last one, even without fresh restrictions.
That’s because when it comes to treatments and immunisation for Covid we have come a long way in a short time.
A year ago, the vaccine rollout hadn’t even started – but now 86% of the population aged over 12 have had at least one jab and 79% have had two.
And the vaccines are working. Fully vaccinated people are less likely to get seriously ill or die.
The outlook for those who do get sick is improving too.
We know more about the most effective medicines and how to treat patients who require hospital treatment.
That’s all a huge help….but there are also some problems…
The first is waning immunity. Protection isn’t permanent – it wears off.
And because the UK rolled out the vaccines so early and so fast, some of the most vulnerable people in the country have a lot less immunity now than they did after they got their second dose.
That’s where booster shots come in. They’ll top up immunity and protect people against new strains of the virus like the Delta variant.
But the uptake has been slower than hoped. The urgency of having the shot hasn’t hit home with everyone. Of the 8.5 million people who are eligible, only 3.7 million have had it.
Little wonder that the health secretary is encouraging us to get on with it:
“We need people to take up those vaccines when they’re offered especially the boosters”Sajid Javid, ITV news
Booster shots “could not be more important”, he said.
The second big issue is the vaccination rate for young people. Many children aged 12-15 haven’t been offered their vaccines yet and most children aged 16 and 17 haven’t had their second doses.
Because of the low vaccine coverage among school kids, cases really shot up when they returned to school after the summer holidays. And those cases have been spreading to the rest of the population.
Again Sajid Javid had an answer:
“We’ve extended the offer of a vaccine to more and more people including young people aged between 12 and 15 years and we’ll be making it easier for them to get protected.”Sajid Javid ITV News
And there’s hope that the October half term break will slow down infections among children and bring case numbers down.
It sounds like the health secretary for England has a plan, but that plan – so far – stops short of introducing the stricter rules on masks and social mixing that health leaders think we need – rules that are in play in other parts of the UK.
For now, it looks unlikely that ministers will bring in Plan B measures.
Cases and hospitalisations might be climbing but they still aren’t as bad as government modelling predicted they’d be earlier in the year.
For the time being, the government is sticking to their original plan: to focus on testing and vaccines.
There is one point everyone agrees on though. The message from scientists, the NHS, and the government is that we should be taking the rise in cases seriously.
The health risks of catching Covid are still there. Vaccines have made the virus less deadly for lots of us but the danger hasn’t gone away.
And there’s another huge public health emergency unfolding: the backlog in NHS hospital treatment.
If Covid cases get out of hand, hospitals will be forced to switch resources to fighting the virus.
In the meantime, many patients with other conditions will get sicker. We should take that risk seriously too.