Some Covid restrictions must immediately be reintroduced if England is to avoid “stumbling into a winter crisis”, health leaders have warned.
The NHS Confederation said a back-up strategy, or Plan B, which includes mandatory face coverings in crowded and enclosed spaces, should be implemented.
UK cases have been rising sharply but deaths are well below the winter peak.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said it was not time for Plan B yet and urged greater uptake of booster jabs.
He said he did not want further lockdowns or to jeopardise the “hard-won gains” of reopening the economy.
“I don’t want to inject any hint of complacency but I think so far our approach is working” he said, pointing to lower rates of hospital admissions and deaths than in earlier waves of infection.
Daily Covid cases have been above 40,000 for seven days in a row, with 43,738 new infections reported on Tuesday, and the number of patients in hospital rose by 10% in a week to 7,749 on Monday.
Another 223 deaths were recorded, the largest number since since March, although daily figures are often higher on Tuesdays.
The government’s Plan A for dealing with Covid in England this winter is currently in place – with booster jabs offered to about 30 million people, a single dose of a vaccine available for healthy 12 to 15-year-olds and people advised to wear face coverings in crowded places.
If these measures are not enough to prevent “unsustainable pressure” on the NHS, then steps like making face coverings mandatory in some settings, asking people to work from home and introducing vaccine passports could be considered as part of Plan B.Matthew Taylor, head of the NHS Confederation, which represents health service organisations, urged the government to roll out Plan B to avoid hospitals becoming overwhelmed.It is not surprising that NHS leaders are warning about a very challenging time ahead with the risk of a “winter crisis”.
Some may feel it is a familiar refrain and that the health service often raises concerns ahead of winter.
But the significance of this intervention by the NHS Confederation is that it came just hours after Downing Street had ruled out Plan B at this stage and said it had not been discussed by the cabinet.
The confederation is, in effect, taking issue with ministers by suggesting the key government test for implementing Plan B in England – the likelihood of the NHS coming under unsustainable pressure – has already been met.
Concerns about the pace of the rollout of the vaccine booster programme and a steady increase in Covid cases and hospital numbers have left some amber lights flashing.
Ministers will argue more time is needed to assess data before taking big decisions on restrictions affecting everyday lives.
But they have acknowledged they will now be keeping “a very close eye” on case numbers.The NHS Confederation has also called for a package of further measures to support frontline services – what it terms as a “Plan B plus”. This could include encouraging people to get vaccinated, turn up to appointments on time and even volunteer to support the NHS.
Downing Street said there were “no plans” to use the Plan B contingency measures, although they were keeping a “close eye” on rising cases. The key message was of the importance of the booster programme and vaccinating 12- to 17-year-olds, the prime minister’s official spokesman said.
As the UK’s early vaccine rollout means some people may be at risk of waning immunity, there has been criticism over the pace of the booster jab programme.
About 4.8 million people had their second dose more than six months ago, but have not yet received the top-up – a gap that is growing each week.
But NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard told MPs on Tuesday that “there is no delay” in sending out invitations for booster jabs, blaming people for being slow in coming forward for their third dose.