The British Medical Association has said the “time is now” for the government to enact plan B in England to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed by growing numbers of coronavirus cases.
The doctors’ trade union believes that not taking further action would constitute “wilful negligence” by ministers and a failure to learn the lessons from the report last week by the Commons health and science committees on the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Infections have been rising sharply since the start of October, but the government is resisting introducing the extra restrictions set out in its winter plan such as masks, vaccine passports and advice to work from home.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the BMA’s council chair, said plan B was devised to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed. “As doctors working on the frontline, we can categorically say that time is now,” he added.
“By the health secretary’s own admission, we could soon see 100,000 cases a day, and we now have the same number of weekly Covid deaths as we had during March, when the country was in lockdown. It is therefore incredibly concerning that he is not willing to take immediate action to save lives and to protect the NHS.”
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On Wednesday Sajid Javid rejected calls for plan B measures despite predicting that infections could reach unprecedented levels.
“Don’t get me wrong, there are huge pressures, especially in A&E, in primary care,” he said. “If we feel at any point it’s becoming unsustainable … we won’t hesitate to act.”
Nagpaul also accused the government of taking “its foot off the brake” and suggesting that life had returned to normal when the UK has more than 10 times the number of cases as France and almost four times as many deaths per million.
He added: “It is wilfully negligent of the Westminster government not to be taking any further action to reduce the spread of infection, such as mandatory mask wearing, physical distancing and ventilation requirements in high-risk settings, particularly indoor crowded spaces.
“These are measures that are the norm in many other nations. Only last week two select committees found the UK was an international outlier when it came to public health policy during this crisis.
“We are rapidly approaching a position where, yet again, the government is delaying for too long, and equivocating over taking action. This is the time to learn the lessons of the past and act fast, or else we will face far more extreme measures later.”
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The NHS Confederation, which represents healthcare providers, urged the government on Tuesday to immediately press ahead with plan B for containing the virus or risk derailing efforts to tackle the backlog of 5 million patients.
Matthew Taylor, its chief executive, said Javid’s warnings of up to 100,000 cases a day emphasised the need for action to prevent the health service “stumbling into a crisis”. Taylor said: “We are right on the edge – and it is the middle of October. It would require an incredible amount of luck for us not to find ourselves in the midst of a profound crisis over the next three months.
“The government ought to not just announce that we’re moving to plan B, but it should be plan B plus. We should do what’s in plan B in terms of masks [and] working from home, but also we should try to achieve the kind of national mobilisation that we achieved in the first and second waves, where the public went out of their way to support and help the health service.”
Ministers should encourage the public to do their bit by using the NHS responsibly, looking out for neighbours, volunteering or even re-entering the healthcare workforce, Taylor added.
Javid said he had great respect for the NHS Confederation, but said he would not be moving to plan B “at this time”. He underlined the fact that ministers would be “staying vigilant, preparing for all eventualities”, however, and said that fresh restrictions might need to be imposed if people did not behave cautiously and the situation worsened.
Among the numerous criticisms in last week’s Commons report was that the UK’s preparation for a pandemic was far too focused on flu, and that ministers waited too long before imposing lockdown measures in March 2020.