Senior figures from across the NHS have issued an urgent plea for a comprehensive plan to tackle a second wave of coronavirus infections, as Boris Johnson continues to lose public confidence in his handling of the pandemic.
Amid persistent fears among scientists that the virus remains too prevalent to ease the lockdown further, the prime minister has been urged to ditch “cheap political rhetoric” that risks eroding the public’s adherence to lockdown measures in the months ahead.
Health chiefs say there should be no further easing before a comprehensive test and trace system has been proved to work, as NHS figures accuse the government of lacking a strategy and dodging an “honest and open” debate about Britain’s plight. They also warned of a “dramatic” drop in capacity at NHS hospitals.
The Observer spoke to organisations including the Royal College of GPs, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, the Royal College of Anaesthetists, the NHS Confederation and NHS Providers on how ministers should plan for a potential second wave. They called for:
• An “aggressive public health campaign” to boost flu immunisation to stop the NHS having to deal with flu as well as Covid-19 outbreaks this winter.
• The retraining of more hospital staff so that they could be a “reserve” force, redeployed in the event of a second peak.
• The retaining of private hospital space to help deal with the NHS backlog.
• A comprehensive plan to protect care homes from a second peak in Covid-19 infections.
There were also demands for more open communication about the risks ahead and the strategy being adopted, following Johnson’s much-criticised claim that the UK would have a “world-beating” test and trace system by the start of June.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “The real concern is that we don’t have that same degree of trust, because we’re not having the kind of honest and open debates that we need. We seem to be resorting to kind of fairly cheap political rhetoric about stuff being world class, when it clearly isn’t.”
Niall Dickson, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “We absolutely don’t want any more relaxation [of lockdown measures] until we are confident that the test and trace system is working both at national and local level.”
Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said: “I think the criticism that we can’t see a strategy is a legitimate criticism … We need a strategy for test and trace, for PPE, for the use of technology, for maintaining Covid services and opening up non-Covid services.”
The latest Opinium poll for the Observer reveals that public confidence in the government’s ability to deal with the pandemic has dropped 21 points since the beginning of lockdown. The proportion of people who lack confidence in the government’s handling has doubled. While 36% said they were confident, 44% said they were not. Meanwhile, the Tory lead over Labour has fallen from 26 points in early April to 3 points in the latest poll.
A further 204 deaths from Covid-19 in the UK have been announced, bringing the total to 40,465.
The growing anxiety about the dangers of a second wave of illness comes as anti-racism protesters defied safety warnings by gathering in their thousands across the UK to demonstrate against the death of George Floyd in America. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, and Priti Patel, the home secretary, had urged people to avoid mass gatherings.
Scientists warned yesterday that the anti-racism protests posed a serious public health risk. “Any mass gathering risks significant numbers of further cases,” said Keith Neal, Nottingham University’s emeritus professor of the epidemiology of infectious diseases. “There is clear evidence that banning mass gatherings was one of the most effective and important parts of the lockdowns across European countries.”
Calls are growing for a rapid public inquiry into the Covid-19 crisis to be launched as soon as this summer. Una O’Brien, the former permanent secretary at the Department for Health, wrote in a blog: “What better time than this summer, as the first serious phase of the pandemic recedes, for the UK government to … launch an impartial, independent and comprehensive inquiry here?”
A Department of Health spokesperson said: “We will continue to be guided by the latest scientific advice – including from world-renowned epidemiologists – and give the NHS whatever it needs, as we have done throughout this unprecedented pandemic.
“Thanks to the hard work and dedication of NHS staff, hospitals have not been overwhelmed and intensive care capacity continues to meet the needs of patients. Our new NHS Test and Trace service is also up and running and anyone in this country with symptoms can book a test, with the majority getting their results back within a day.”