NHS staff ‘terrified’ of end to coronavirus restrictions while experts urge delay

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Easing coronavirus restrictions too soon will be a “recipe for disaster”, a doctor has warned. It comes amid concerns for an NHS already struggling with a backlog of non-coronavirus patients.

Several frontline NHS workers have expressed fears about the impact of reopening in the coming weeks. Some described the health service as still “on its knees” and at higher capacity than usual. Experts have also urged ministers to delay the 21 June easing of restrictions.

But prime minister Boris Johnson has come under pressure to move ahead with “freedom day” on 21 June. Reports suggest he’s considering pushing the date back by at least two weeks. This would be to allow more people to be fully vaccinated.

“Without question, there should be a pause”

Dr Megan Smith told the PA news agency: “Everyone in the NHS at the moment is kind of terrified”.

Dr Megan Smith (EveryDoctor)
Dr Megan Smith (EveryDoctor)

Smith is also legal and policy officer for campaign group EveryDoctor. She said the NHS is under pressure dealing with issues from the first waves of the pandemic. And it couldn’t cope with even a small spike in coronavirus patients.

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She said:

Now patients have presented and a lot of them are presenting in a worse state.

We’ve heard of hospitals effectively closing their waiting lists, which is unheard of.

… Without question, there should be a pause

… And in my view, there should be a look at whether there needs to be backtracking and have more restrictions in place.

Obviously that is a deeply unpopular thing to say.

Delta variant

Half of adults in the UK are now estimated to have received both doses of a coronavirus vaccine. Three-quarters have received a single shot. However, Smith said this may not be enough protection against the rising Delta variant.

The view echoed that of the Society for Acute Medicine. It warned that even a small increase in coronavirus numbers could jeopardise plans to tackle the backlog of routine surgery. Dr Nick Scriven, immediate past president, said:

Any slight rise in numbers will put the latter into jeopardy, as hospitals will again lose any flexibility in how they manage their bed bases around infection control policies

He added that there was “very significant concern” around the Delta – or Indian – variant, “especially around the potential for vaccinated staff to be asymptomatic carriers”.

GP surgeries under strain

With hospitals working through referrals, general practice has come under increasing strain.

Dr Emily Ball, a general practitioner in the North West, said GPs were “pretty broken and close to burnout”.

Dr Emily Ball (Emily Ball)

She told PA that staff are working up to 15 hours a day to fit people in. They’re regularly sworn at by patients desperate to be seen, and the doors to her surgery were recently smashed in.

Ball said:

We know there’s still a lot of kind of unclear messaging going on, and I think unfortunately is people’s behaviour has been relaxing

… And then the beaches are packed, nobody’s wearing a mask, there’s no social distancing, and you just want to weep.

The NHS is still in crisis and we cannot cope as it is. Unlocking poses a real threat to it just collapsing, and my biggest concern is patient safety.

‘It’s not just going away’

Smith said it was easy to be “lulled into a false sense of security” by low numbers of coronavirus patients in hospital. She added:

We are all sitting here thinking, ‘oh god it’s going to happen again’.

… It does feel as though a lot of the public has tried to go back to normal and has shut its eyes and ears to what is going on in hospitals.

It feels a bit like the NHS is going to pay for everyone else’s freedom and pleasure.

And those patients who will get infected and who will die for it will pay as well, but everyone else will be okay and that’s not really a position that I think is particularly morally defensible.

I understand the people just want this all to go away but we’re adults here, and it’s not just going away.

We need to be in it together because it’s just deeply unfair to make those working in the NHS and the proportion of families who will lose somebody bear the brunt of all of this.

Experts urge delay to freedom day

Meanwhile, scientists have urged ministers to immediately announce a delay to the final relaxation of restrictions “by a few weeks” amid rising cases. Experts said the government should make a decision now so people and businesses could begin to plan for a delay.

Ministers are due to announce whether final restrictions can be eased in the next seven days. But professor David King, former scientific adviser to the government, said officials already have enough data to make their decision.

He said hospital admissions are slowly going up and that new cases have increased by thousands in just one week.

 A few more weeks

King was the government’s chief scientific adviser from 2000 to 2007. He said that hundreds of the new cases each day were among those who have had both coronavirus jabs.

He told Sky News:

(There are) 5,300 new cases of the disease per day in the United Kingdom and we’re up about 2,000 on last week.

Now we’ve been discussing whether or not we’re going into a serious third wave and I don’t think we can possibly wait any longer – this is the evidence of another wave appearing.

We know that anyone vaccinated twice is relatively safe against the virus, but let’s not forget the one in 25 new cases are people who have been vaccinated twice – that means 400 new cases a day are people who had the vaccine twice.

He added:

(On) the number of people in our hospitals, which the Government says is relatively stable, it’s 932 per day going into hospital, which is up 65 from last week. It’s not actually stable, it is slowly rising.

I’m very reluctant to say that we should not go out of lockdown on 21 June, but I think the figures are in now, and it will be wise for the Government to announce right away a delay in opening, just so that we can all plan for the post-21 June period.

I would give a few weeks’ delay and see how the figures are emerging.

Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said that the added time of “a few more weeks rather than months” may be needed before a full exit from lockdown.

Gupta told BBC Breakfast that options could include a modification of a full exit from lockdown. It would involve continued mask-wearing in workplaces and remote working.

Health secretary’s response

Pressed on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday whether June 21’s unlocking could be postponed, Mr Hancock said: “We are absolutely open to doing that if that’s what needs to happen.”

The health secretary said:

Critically, those who are double vaccinated also appear to be – even if they’re in hospital – less seriously ill,” he told Marr.

So the vaccine is working and it is our way through it, but the new variant, because it’s more transmissible, is obviously making that calculation harder and we’ll look at the data for another week and then make a judgment.

Daily reported coronavirus cases over the weekend remained above the 5,000 mark. A further 5,341 lab-confirmed cases were recorded on Sunday 6 June. And the government said a further four people had died within 28 days of testing positive for coronavirus as of 9am that day.

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