England’s chief medical officer has warned of rising coronavirus cases as winter “is drawing closer”, but the Government is so far sticking with its current plan rather than tightening up restrictions.
The PA news agency takes a look at the situation and what people are saying about whether the UK could be facing a new lockdown.
– What is the approach being taken by the Government now?
Currently, Plan A is in place, which focuses on following through with the vaccine programme, while also carrying out a booster jab campaign to top up the immunity of those already fully inoculated against the virus.
In terms of advice, people are encouraged to meet outdoors or open windows if indoors, wear a face covering in crowded and enclosed settings, wash their hands frequently, and use the NHS Covid-19 app.
– And is this not enough?
Not according to a health leader who has warned we “risk stumbling into a winter crisis” unless tougher measures are enacted now.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation which represents health bodies, said it was time to bring in Plan B, and even suggested a Plan C was required if the second level of measures were insufficient.
– So what is Plan B?
Announcing its autumn/winter strategy last month, the Government set out details of a Plan B to escalate to if needed.
This could involve reinstating work-from-home guidance, introducing strict vaccine-only entry conditions for some venues and events, and making it mandatory to wear masks in crowded places and on public transport.
There could also be communication to the public that the level of risk has increased, and with it the need to behave more cautiously, a tactic officials suggested had been seen to work when cases had risen previously.
– How are cases, hospital admissions and deaths looking at the moment?
On Tuesday, the Government said a further 223 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19, bringing the UK total to 138,852.
While the numbers are often higher on Tuesdays because of a lag in reporting deaths and cases over the weekend, this was the highest figure for daily reported deaths since March 9.
Meanwhile, the seven-day average for cases stood at 44,145 infections per day, the highest level for almost three months.
Professor Andrew Hayward, of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the rise in infections is among secondary school aged children, and added “we need to get the vaccinations up there as they can pass it on to their family members”.
He said a faster uptake of jabs in this age group would “certainly help” bring down infection levels.
Across the UK as a whole, 7,749 patients with Covid-19 were in hospital on October 18, up 10% week-on-week and the highest number since September 20.
Nearly 40,000 Covid-19 patients were in hospital at the peak of the second wave in January.
– Do we have an idea what to expect in the coming months?
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said cases could rise to 100,000 a day, and hospital admissions are now approaching 1,000 per day.
He warned that while the link between cases and hospital admissions and deaths has “significantly weakened” due to the vaccine rollout, “it’s not broken”.
Professor Stephen Powis said there is no specific number of Covid-19 hospital admissions which would trigger interventions because the situation “is more complex than that”, for example taking into account flu, other viruses and other emergency admissions.
– Is the current situation different to situations earlier in the pandemic?
Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said we are going into winter with a “really high level” of cases and that the number of deaths are “moving in the wrong direction”.
She said cases now are almost as high as they were in July and “not far off” where they were last winter.
Downing Street has credited the vaccination programme for hospital admissions and deaths being “far lower than we saw in previous peaks”.
But when it comes to virus spread in the community, Professor Neil Ferguson, a leading member of Sage, said people should be aware that “we have currently higher levels of infection in the community than we’ve almost ever had during the pandemic”.
Vaccines were still working well overall to prevent severe disease.
The latest available numbers, released at the end of September by Public Health England, estimated jabs had prevented 261,500 hospital admissions among people aged 45 and over, while the number of deaths prevented by the rollout in England was estimated to be 127,500.
– How does the situation in the UK compare to other countries in Europe?
The weekly rate of new reported cases of Covid-19 in the UK is one of the highest in the world, having jumped from 367 cases per 100,000 people at the start of October to its current level of 463 per 100,000.
By contrast, rates have dropped to low levels in neighbouring countries such as Spain (24 per 100,000), France (48) and Germany (80).
In terms of vaccine uptake as of Wednesday, almost 68% of the UK population had received two doses of vaccine according to Government figures, compared with at least 75% in Denmark, 79% in Spain and 86% in Portugal.
– What would need to change for Plan B to be implemented by the Government?
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman has said there are “a number of different factors that would play into” a decision to bring in contingency measures set out in the autumn/winter strategy.
“Largely it would be required when there was a significant risk of the NHS being overwhelmed,” he said.
Mr Javid said while there are huge “pressures” on the NHS currently, he does not believe these are currently “unsustainable”.
He told the Number 10 press conference: “If we feel at any point it’s becoming unsustainable then the department, together with our friends in the NHS, we won’t hesitate to act.”
– So is a lockdown off the table?
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said he would “rule out” a further lockdown.
He said the Government had “plotted a path” between the view held by some that the lockdown was unnecessary, and others who call for restrictive measures to continue.
Prof Ferguson said that while a Plan B might be needed “which involves some rolling back of measures”, he was doubtful the country would “ever get close to the lockdown we were in in January of this year”.
But Mr Javid warned “we’ve all got a role to play”, saying that if people do not get vaccinated and fail to make behavioural changes then it is more likely that restrictions will return.
– What are health leaders saying?
Mr Taylor said we were facing “a perfect storm”, with the usual winter pressures plus Covid on top.
He urged people to wear masks in crowded places, avoid unnecessary indoor gatherings and consider working from home if they could.
Professor Chris Whitty warned people that “now is the time” to get a jab if they have not already done so, and encouraged vaccinated people to “please take up the offer” of a booster.
England’s chief medical officer added that “ventilation, masks in crowded indoor spaces and hand-washing remain important”.
NHS England’s national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said it “undoubtedly feels exceptionally busy in the NHS”, while Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), acknowledged the country is going into winter with a “really high level” of cases.