The government has announced that it will execute Plan B of its winter plan to control Covid-19 – essentially: bringing back mandatory mask-wearing, guidance to work from home if you can, and either proof of vaccination or a negative lateral flow test result at big events.
Some scientists fear these measures are “not enough” in the face of Omicron, the new variant that has started spreading in the UK.
Yet nearly three months ago, doctors and health leaders were calling for measures that go beyond Plan B – what amounted to Plan C – before the new mutation had even been identified.
In September, I was told that the government should prepare for “further firebreak lockdowns” if hospital admission figures began rising by a spokesperson for the Doctors’ Association UK, a grassroots organisation that works with thousands of doctors in the NHS.
“We saw how overwhelmed the UK was last winter and the government must be prepared to take swift action should the admissions figures rise – including further firebreak lockdowns if needed,” an NHS GP representing the group told me.
The group also argued that social distancing – which does not feature in Plan A or Plan B – and mask-wearing should be “standard as part of Plan A”.
That same month, the council chair of the British Medical Association Dr Chaand Nagpaul also told me that the government should “introduce other measures” to its official plan, including making outdoor meeting where possible and mask-wearing in crowded indoor spaces requirements.
“The UK government is advising the public to meet outdoors where possible, and to wear masks in crowded indoor spaces,” he said in September. “They clearly believe these simple measures do make a difference, yet are failing to act by making these a requirement. We’ve had this kind of doublespeak before, which has resulted in action not being taken until it is too late.”
Since then, in October, the NHS Confederation, which represents a wide range of health organisations, called for the government to enact “Plan B plus” “sooner rather than later”, which would add a public awareness campaign to the government’s Plan B.
The confederation argued that this should entail calling on the public to turn up to scheduled health appointments on time, only call 999 in emergencies, accept remote GP appointments and consultations with nurses and pharmacists when GPs aren’t available, and volunteer to support the NHS and join or return to the workforce if eligible.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said at the time that the government should also put together a “Plan C” and communicate it to health leaders ahead of a situation where Plan B wouldn’t be enough: “It is time for the government to enact Plan B of its strategy without delay because, without pre-emptive action, we risk stumbling into a winter crisis. Also, health leaders need to understand what a ‘Plan C’ would entail if these measures are insufficient.”
At present, there is no Plan C, and Plan B measures are being enacted later than many health leaders warned they should have been. NHS insiders are holding their breath to see if they will be enough to stop the spread of Omicron impacting hospitals that are already at peak bed occupancy.
[See also: How the number of NHS beds in England has halved]