Covid restrictions to be reintroduced in England if NHS becomes overwhelmed

Coronavirus pandemic updates

Vaccine passports, mandatory face masks and work-from-home orders will be reintroduced in England if the NHS faces unsustainable pressure this winter from Covid-19 as it clears the treatment backlog.

The government published on Tuesday its plan for dealing with coronavirus and the flu this autumn and winter. Ministers are hopeful that “Plan A”, which is focused on booster vaccinations and jabbing teenagers, will be adequate.

But if pressure on the health service proves too great, it will implement measures in England under “Plan B”, including vaccine passports, the return of face masks and orders to work from home. The government would also intensify its communications to urge people to be cautious.

Sajid Javid, health secretary, said that Plan B would only be implemented if the NHS faced “unsustainable” pressure and further measures would need to be backed up by data, although he did not give any details.

“There is likely to be a lot of non-Covid demand on the NHS including the flu and norovirus,” he said. “Any responsible government must prepare for all eventualities.”

Vaccine passports could be introduced with one week‘s notice and would be applicable for nightclubs, indoor venues with a capacity of more than 500 people and outdoor settings with more than 1,000 people.

The plan did not include any reference to reintroducing a lockdown. The government will lose its powers to introduce such restrictions under the Coronavirus Act, which will have some of its measures removed to appease backbench Tory MPs.

But the winter plan did not fully rule out another lockdown. “The government remains committed to taking whatever action is necessary to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed, but more harmful economic and social restrictions would only be considered as a last resort.”

Javid confirmed that Britons aged over 50, clinically vulnerable individuals and healthcare professionals would be offered a third shot of a Covid vaccine to combat waning immunity.

People will become eligible for a third dose six months after they received their second dose. All booster recipients will be offered an mRNA vaccine, either a half dose of the Moderna jab or the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, as their third dose, after data from the University of Southampton’s Cov-Boost study confirmed they provoked the best immune response. 

The programme, which was given the go-ahead by ministers on Tuesday after advice from the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, will largely be distributed by general practitioners and pharmacies, and is set to begin in the coming days.

Officials estimate between 25m and 30m people across the UK will qualify for a booster shot, of whom 1.6m are already eligible. Based on when they received their second jabs, the majority will be eligible for a third dose by November, according to Financial Times analysis. 

“The JCVI is advising that a booster dose be offered to the more vulnerable, to maximise individual protection ahead of an unpredictable winter,” said Professor Wei Shen Lim, the committee’s Covid chair. “Most of these people will also be eligible for the annual flu vaccine and we strongly advise them to take up this offer as well.”

“As most younger adults will only have received their second Covid-19 vaccine dose by late summer or early autumn, the benefits of booster vaccination in this group will be considered at a later time,” he added.

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Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi confirmed on Tuesday that booster jabs would be administered alongside the flu jab.

“Where possible we will try and co-administer, with one caveat. With flu, GPs and pharmacies — which are the backbone of the vaccination programme — can rapidly vaccinate lots of people”, he told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. 

The news follows a recommendation from the chief medical officers in the four UK nations that all children aged between 12 and 15 should be offered the Covid-19 jab. 

Anthony Harnden, the JCVI deputy chair, defended the communication with the public on the issue of vaccinating over 12s.

“I think the public in the end will appreciate our honesty and I think they will also appreciate the CMOs’ perspective, and the government offering them choice”, he said speaking on the Today programme. 

“I agree it will cause uncertainty, hesitation and debate within families, but sometimes life isn’t black and white, and this is one of those situations.”


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