Bring back stricter Covid rules or 'risk winter crisis' and undoing recovery

Christmas was devastated for many last year following last minute rule changes. Credit: PA

Ministers must immediately enforce England's “Plan B” Covid restrictions or “risk stumbling into a winter crisis” amid rising numbers of cases, an NHS boss has warned.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, urged the government to implement the back-up strategy - which involves measures including bringing back mandatory face coverings in public places.

Coronavirus deaths in the UK rose to their highest daily level since early March in Tuesday's figures, while cases are at their highest for almost three months.

Mr Taylor's warning follows that of new NHS England boss, Amanda Pritchard, who said on Tuesday the UK is "in for a tough winter".

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Downing Street maintained it was keeping a “very close eye” on rising case rates, but stressed the prime minister has “absolutely no plan to introduce Plan B”.

As well as a return of mandatory face masks, Plan B could also involve introducing vaccine passports for nightclub entry - and work from home advice could return.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng ruled out another lockdown this winter, but did not reject the idea that Plan B could be used.

Ministers are "looking at the situation in real time" he said, as he acknowledged "infection rates are rising" - but death and hospitalisation rates are "much, much lower than they were at the beginning of this year and we're learning to live with the virus".

Asked about the prospect of another lockdown, the minister said: "I rule it out."

A Covid-19 drive-through test centre for NHS workers in Wembley, north-west London. Credit: Jonathan Brady/PA

Mr Taylor said the NHS is preparing for what could be “the most challenging winter on record” and urged the public to “show extra support for the NHS” by “behaving in ways that will keep themselves and others safe”.

The NHS Confederation is the membership organisation that brings together, supports and speaks for the whole healthcare system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

He added: “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.

“Also, health leaders need to understand what a ‘Plan C’ would entail if these measures are insufficient.

“The government should not wait for Covid infections to rocket and for NHS pressures to be sky high before the panic alarm is sounded.”

Mr Taylor said if the government “fails to get a grip” on rising coronavirus cases, the nation’s recovery from the pandemic could be “put at risk”.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

What is the current state of the pandemic in the UK?

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 is the highest figure for daily reported deaths since March 9.

Meanwhile, the seven-day average for cases is standing at 44,145 cases per day – the highest level for almost three months.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

Will the government consider bringing in stricter measures?

The prime minister’s official spokesman has previously said Plan B would only be used if there was a “significant risk of the NHS being overwhelmed”.

The spokesman said: “There are a number of different factors that would play into that decision.

“Largely it would be required when there was a significant risk of the NHS being overwhelmed.

“We are not at that point. Because of the vaccination programme, the levels we are seeing in both patients admitted to hospital and deaths are far lower than we saw in previous peaks.”

What are other experts saying?

On Tuesday, Professor Neil Ferguson, a leading member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said he thinks “Plan B” could be implemented in England this winter, but it is unlikely “we’ll ever get close” to the lockdown the country experienced in January.

He added that the UK is no longer in the top rank of European countries in terms of overall vaccination coverage, particularly in vaccinating teenagers.

The UK now has one of the highest weekly rates of new reported cases in the world.

Elderly and vulnerable people - those among the first in the UK to be vaccinated - are being urged to accept the offer of a booster jab as soon as they're invited.

Professor Andrew Hayward, an epidemiologist at University College London said the booster jab programme needed to "speed up" in order to avoid a high number of cases becoming a high number of deaths.

He told Times Radio: "We are entirely reliant on the vaccination programme to reduce hospitalisations and deaths, and we know immunity from those vaccines, it has waned quite a lot over the course of five or six months, and there is evidence it is not from infection but also severe disease.

"It is important for people if they have been offered a vaccine to take that up."

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

What does the data show?

Just over 67% of the UK population has received two doses of vaccine, according to government figures – compared with at least 75% in Denmark, 79% in Spain and 86% in Portugal.

The weekly rate of new reported cases of Covid-19 in the UK has 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 very low levels in neighbouring countries such as Spain (24 per 100,000), France (48) and Germany (80).