< Back to 68k.news UK front page

We need better plans for the winter ahead

Original source (on modern site) | Article images: [1]

It would be nice to think that, when it comes to getting through the approaching winter, the Government will follow Plan A as outlined by Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid yesterday. This would rely heavily on vaccinating children and offering boosters to the over-50s in order to suppress the worst impacts of Covid when it spreads faster, as it probably will.

We would negotiate the worst months for respiratory illnesses with no more restrictions than there are now, Christmas would not be cancelled as it was last year, schools would remain open and people would work from the office rather than from home. In this benign scenario, there would be minimal disruption even if cases rose because hospitalisations and fatalities would stay comparatively low and the NHS would not fall over.

But few listening to the Prime Minister or the Health Secretary can have concluded that Plan A is at all likely. Most of the questioning from MPs was about Plan B, which would be required to mitigate pressure on the health service in the event of another Covid surge. This winter it will almost certainly be combined with an increase in flu to present a double challenge to the NHS.

Plan B essentially means that all the restrictive measures from the past 18 months - including lockdowns themselves, either national or regional - are being kept in reserve to be rolled out if ministers and scientists think they are warranted.

The problem is that no one will say precisely what those circumstances might be. Mr Javid was asked in the Commons to set out the triggers for returning to mandated mask wearing or the reinstatement of isolation measures - the so-called pingdemic - but was unwilling to list them. The Prime Minister was asked the same question and said the principal objective was to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed - but what does that mean exactly, since at the height of the pandemic thousands of beds remained empty?

Ministers must surely have some precise benchmarks in mind before reaching for Plan B and should share them with the country. Greg Clark, the chairman of the Commons science and technology committee, asked whether the number of cases would be a trigger, pointing out that increasing infections do not matter provided they do not translate into serious illness. With 80 per cent of adults now double vaccinated, higher caseloads should not translate into anything like the number of serious illnesses seen last year.

Yet many of the concerns expressed by Labour MPs in particular concerned the prospect of rising cases. Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, pointed out that cases were higher now than at the same time last year as, indeed, are hospitalisations and fatalities.

But the fundamental difference is that we now have a vaccine. If the Government is pushed into fixating on cases alone, then Plan B is a certainty. It may well be, in any case, thanks to the additional threat from flu because the low incidence of the virus in the southern hemisphere this year has not made it easy to establish the strain of influenza that might hit the country this autumn.

This could affect the effectiveness of the flu vaccine, though experts remain confident that this will not be the case. Millions of older people are being encouraged to take the flu jab and a Covid booster in a bid to counter the threat. The necessity of a third Covid jab, however, has been questioned by some epidemiologists, who believe the double dose offers sufficient protection.

It goes without saying that Mr Johnson does not want to go back to lockdowns and is relying heavily on the vaccines to ensure this does not happen. But nor are they being ruled out. Moreover, the Government is also continuing to lean on testing people, including children, who are showing no symptoms. This is despite the fact that more than 98 per cent of children sent home because of positive cases at their schools tested negative. Is this regime really needed any longer?

It is apparent that the key metrics for triggering Plan B are either a new vaccine-resistant coronavirus mutation or overwhelming pressure on the NHS. This makes it all the more concerning that plans have not obviously been put in place to increase hospital capacity when everyone has known for months that it will be needed. A long winter lies ahead and Plan C beckons.

< Back to 68k.news UK front page