Health leaders are calling for an urgent review to ensure Britain is properly prepared for the “real risk” of a second wave of coronavirus.
Ministers have been warned that urgent action is needed to prevent further loss of life and to protect the economy amid growing fears of a renewed outbreak over the winter.
The appeal is backed by the presidents of the Royal Colleges of Physicians, Surgeons, GPs and Nursing – as well as the chair of the British Medical Association.
It comes after Tuesday’s announcement by Boris Johnson of the biggest easing to date of the coronavirus lockdown in England.
The prime minister said the two-metre social-distancing rule would be replaced with a “one-metre plus” rule paving the way for pubs, restaurants, hotels and cinemas to begin reopening from 4 July.
In an open letter to the leaders of all the UK political parties published in the British Medical Journal, the health leaders call for a “rapid and forward-looking assessment” of the state of national preparedness in the event of a renewed flare-up.
“While the future shape of the pandemic in the UK is hard to predict, the available evidence indicates that local flare ups are increasingly likely and a second wave a real risk,” they said.
“Many elements of the infrastructure needed to contain the virus are beginning to be put in place, but substantial challenges remain.
“The job now is not only to deal urgently with the wide-ranging impacts of the first phase of the pandemic, but to ensure that the country is adequately prepared to contain a second phase.”
They called for the creation of a cross-party commission with a “constructive, non-partisan, four nations approach”, to be established to develop practical recommendations for action based on what had been learned so far.
“We believe this will be essential if the UK is to get ahead of the curve,” they said.
“It should focus on those areas of weakness where action is needed urgently to prevent further loss of life and restore the economy as fully and as quickly as possible.
“We think there’s a strong case for an immediate assessment of national preparedness, with the first results available no later than August, and that all its work should be completed by the end of October.”
Ministers have already said that the temporary Nightingale Hospitals set up in case the NHS was overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases will remain on standby over the coming months.
In other developments:
– The government is providing £105 million to help prevent vulnerable people given emergency accommodation during the pandemic being returned to the streets.
– Labour is calling for NHS staff to undergo weekly testing for coronavirus in order to ensure waiting list backlogs can be safely cleared
– First minister Nicola Sturgeon has said the two-metre rule would remain in place in Scotland.
Announcing, the easing of the two-metre rule in England, Johnson said the government was taking a “cautious approach” and that ministers “”will not hesitate to apply the brakes” in the event of an upsurge in the disease.
However at the final daily No 10 briefing, both the government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance and the chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty stressed it was not a “risk-free” move.
Prof Whitty said it was “absolutely critical” that people continued to observe social-distancing, taking steps to mitigate the spread of the disease when it was not possible to stay two metres apart.
He warned the virus was likely to be present in the UK until at least the spring of 2021 and that if people returned to their normal patterns of behaviour “we will get an uptick for sure”.
Vallance also warned that despite the falling numbers of people infected with the disease, the threat remained.
“Don’t be fooled that this means it has gone away. The disease is growing across the world. It is coming down in the UK but it hasn’t gone away,” he said.
The easing of the two-metre rule was warmly welcomed by the hospitality sector which had warned that many pubs, cafes and restaurants would be forced to close if it remained in place.
Hairdressers, barbers, cinemas, museums and art galleries in England are now also preparing to open their doors to visitors again from 4 July.
However “close proximity” businesses including nightclubs, soft play centres, indoor gyms, nail bars and beauty salons will remain shut, as will bowling alleys and water parks.
Under the “one-metre plus” rule, businesses will be required to take other other mitigation measures such as the use of face coverings, increased hygiene or layout changes in premises where people cannot remain two metres apart.
The government is now expected to publish detailed sector-by-sector guidance on Wednesday explaining how businesses can safely re-open.
Johnson had originally said it would be released on Tuesday. No reason was given for the delay.
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