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The British Medical Association, the top trade union for doctors, has called for an “urgent rethink” of the government’s Covid strategy, arguing that it is “not working” and leading to rising pressure on health services.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the BMA council, said Downing Street should never have abandoned restrictions amid soaring infections in the UK, adding that the situation will “continue to worsen as a result”.
He also questioned the mounting focus on the “excessive pinging” of the NHS app, which is the direct result of the government’s decision to allow the virus to “let rip” throughout the nation, at the risk of endangering thousands of more lives and fuelling a long-Covid crisis.
The critique comes as the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that around one in 75 people were infected with Covid-19 last week – the highest number since the end of January, and a rise from one in 95 people in the previous week.
England’s weekly hospitalisation rate is also returning to the same heights seen in early March, at 5.88 admissions per 100,000 people. Across the UK, there are currently 4,861 Covid patients in hospital.
“BMA members across the country are seeing patient care threatened as surges in Covid illness are resulting in hospitals having to cancel more non-urgent care, and GPs are overstretched with demand,” Dr Nagpaul said.
“These pressures are now being exacerbated by increasing numbers of health service staff themselves falling ill or self-isolating, and unable to work at a time when they are most needed.
“The government needs to wake up.”
New data from Public Health England has meanwhile suggested that the dominant Delta variant may be 46 per cent more likely to cause reinfection than the Alpha variant, first identified in Kent last year.
From 21 June to 19 July, some 1,788 people were admitted to hospital after testing positive with the Delta variant. Of these, 970 (54 per cent) were unvaccinated, while 530 (30 per cent) had received both doses.
And from February to mid-July, among the under-50s who had received both vaccines, just four patients died from the Delta variant out of 15,346 cases in this age group, PHE said. There have been 34 deaths among the unvaccinated in the same age group, among 119,063 Delta cases.
The PHE also reported that a new coronavirus variant, known as B.1.621, is being subject to laboratory testing to better understand how its mutations affect the virus’s behaviour.
B.1.621 has been designated a “variant under investigation”, though PHE said there is no evidence to suggest it diminishes the effectiveness of the vaccines or causes more serious illness.
Sixteen confirmed cases of the variant have been identified across the country so far.
In response to the rising app alerts that have been triggered in recent weeks – more than 600,000 self-isolation alerts were sent between 8 and 15 July, leading to widespread absences in various sectors – the government has been urged to tailor the sensitivity of the software and introduce exemptions.
But Dr Nagpaul said the NHS app is not the problem. “The reality that the NHS and key services are suffering staff shortages due to self-isolation is a clear sign that the government must now put into action more stringent infection control measures to decisively bring down the spiralling spread of this virus, rather than its current approach of letting it run loose amongst citizens,” he said.
The government has ruled out extending the special exemptions from self-isolation rule to hospitality or retail sectors and has said that a new “test and release” scheme for the food industry will focus on warehouse and distribution workers – not supermarket store staff.
Around 10,000 workers deemed critical to Britain’s food supply chain will be able to avoid quarantine if “pinged” by the NHS Covid app – so long as they test negative as part of a new, daily testing regime.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, has called for people to continue wearing masks and avoid poorly ventilated indoor settings to reduce transmissions and avoid being “pinged”.
“The way to prevent the so-called pingdemic is to drive down transmission,” he said on Friday.
“If we have lower transmission in this country by continuing to wear masks and avoiding poorly ventilated indoor settings as much as we can until as much as the population is vaccinated as possible, that will drive down transmission and also help reduce the number of people having to isolate.”
A total of 36,389 cases were reported on Friday – the third successive day that infections have fallen. However, data from the ZOE Covid app suggests that the peak of the current wave has yet to be reached.
“Unfortunately, hopes that the current wave of infections had peaked have faded, as ZOE’s updated data shows new Covid cases continuing to rise as the UK lifts most restrictions,” Sir Jeremy said.
“While Covid is less severe in the young and vaccinated population, it’s not definitely not going away anytime soon.”