Health Secretary Sajid Javid has outlined the government’s winter Covid-19 strategy, which includes the revocation of certain coronavirus-specific laws, as well as a contingency plan should infections surge over the coming months.
Speaking today in the House of Commons (14 September), Javid announced a five-pillar plan designed to help deal with an expected surge in infections, including a booster jab programme for priority groups and vaccinations for children aged 12-15 set to begin next week, following scientific recommendations.
However, a range of measures, including the introduction of vaccine passports, the mandating of face coverings in public spaces and an official work-from-home instruction form part of a “Plan B” contingency strategy should infections threaten to overwhelm the NHS over winter.
What is the five-pillar plan?
When announcing the government’s plans, the Secretary of State identified five key areas of focus over the coming months: vaccines, supporting the NHS and social care, test and tracing, a flu vaccination campaign, and changes to international travel.
Vaccines: Booster doses will be offered to those within vaccine priority groups one to nine (over-50s, the vulnerable and front-line health workers), with the additional shots to begin next week (20 September). And, following a recommendation from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, all children between 12-15 in England will be offered one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab – again, to begin next week.
Supporting the NHS and social care: The government announced a £5.4bn injection of funding into the NHS – to be paid for by an increase in National Insurance payments announced on 7 September – with £1bn of the new fund to be used on clearing the backlog that has built up over the past 18 months.
The government has also launched a consultation on the possibility of making Covid-19 and flu vaccinations a condition of deployment for front-line NHS staff – which would mirror the requirement for care staff working in adult care homes.
Test and tracing: PCR testing will continue to be offered for those displaying Covid-19 symptoms and the close contacts of those who have tested positive for the virus.
The government also announced that contact tracing will continue through the existing NHS system, and for those required to isolate, practical and financial support will be offered to people who are eligible and need assistance.
Flu vaccination programme: Outlining the government’s desire for people to be vaccinated against both Covid and the seasonal flu, the Health Secretary announced that over the next few months, “the largest ever flu vaccination campaign this country has ever seen” will commence to help ease the usual influx of flu cases the NHS deals with every year.
International changes: Following confusion over how it works, the government has abandoned its traffic light system and will instead introduce a new framework for international travel, which is to be outlined by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps in the coming weeks. It is expected that the list of countries to which Britons will be advised against travelling will significantly shrink.
The government also announced a commitment to aid the global efforts to accelerate the vaccination process across the world.
What laws have been removed?
As coronavirus cases surged in spring 2020, the government brought in the Coronavirus Act, which constituted emergency measures that enabled restrictions to be put in place. Today, Javid announced powers that allowed the closure of schools would be scrapped, but failed to elaborate on what other powers were to end.
Importantly, the Health Secretary did not announce the rescinding of laws that could impose local or national lockdowns – with Javid saying that “the remaining provisions will be those that are critical to the government’s response to the pandemic”.
What will happen if cases rise?
The government did announce a “Plan B” strategy that would come into force should the coming months see Covid cases rise to a point that risks overwhelming the NHS.
In addition to increased public health messaging to exercise caution, this could mean the government mandating masks in certain spaces. Work-from-home instructions could also come back if cases continue to rise, and, to the jeer of one MP, the introduction of vaccine passports would come into force should the conditions necessitate their use, the government confirmed.
Will there be any more lockdowns?
When answering questions following the announcement of the government’s winter plan, Javid avoided shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth’s question over the possibility of the reintroduction of local or national lockdowns should cases spiral.
Legislation for imposing lockdowns was not repealed, which means it is at least a possibility. However, the success of the UK’s vaccination roll-out, with incoming booster shots and vaccinations for under-16s, coupled with the flu vaccination push and the option of other, less drastic restrictions mean that, for the moment, the likelihood of local and national lockdowns is slim.
Whatever the next few months will bring, one thing is certain: the government must learn the mistakes of last winter and be proactive in this critical chapter of the pandemic response.