Ministers have been told by their senior scientific advisers to start preparing for “rapid deployment” of basic Covid pandemic measures amid rising infections and hospitalisation rates.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said the reintroduction of mask-wearing, working from home guidance and vaccine certification – key components to the government’s ‘Plan B’ – would “reduce the need for more stringent, disruptive, and longer-lasting measures” in the future.
In minutes published on Friday, Sage said that advice to work from home is “likely to have the greatest individual impact” in cutting infections, which are now increasing in the majority of age groups and regions across the UK, according to official data.
It comes after NHS chiefs have called on the government to take urgent action to halt the spread of coronavirus in order to avoid a winter crisis.
The NHS Confederation, a membership body of healthcare trusts and commissioning groups, said that the “plan B” strategy set out in September should now be implemented.
Under plan B, a contingency plan drawn up by government ministers, face masks would be made compulsory in some settings and people would be asked to work from home again.
Vaccine passports could be introduced for some venues.
The public would also be told “clearly and urgently” about the need to exercise caution to help control the virus.
Outlining the plan in the Commons last month, health secretary Sajid Javid said that although the need to implement such measures was “not an outcome anyone wants, it’s one that we need to be ready for just in case”.
The head of the NHS Confederation has warned that the plan B measures are necessary to ensure that efforts being made to tackle the backlog of 5 million patients will not be derailed.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the confederation, said: “We are right on the edge – and it is the middle of October. It would require an incredible amount of luckfor us not to find ourselves in the midst of a profound crisis over the next three months.
“The government ought not just to 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 ... 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.”
Despite the calls from NHS chiefs, the government has said it has “absolutely no plan” to introduce new measures, but added that it was keeping a “very close eye” on the data.
Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky News on Wednesday morning that there would not be another national lockdown, saying: “I would rule that out.”
He added: “I think the conversation about restrictions on travel, restrictions on more lockdowns is completely unhelpful. We don’t want to go back into lockdown and further restrictions.”
On Tuesday the UK reported 223 Covid-19 deaths recorded within 28 days of a positive test – a seven-month high. The seven-day average for Covid-19 cases stands at 44,145 a day, which is higher than in other European countries.