The NHS Confederation, a group that represents NHS workers, has called on the government to implement its “plan B” scenario after data showed Covid-19 cases are beginning to climb in the UK again, and the number of people with the disease taking up beds in intensive care units has risen.
But ministers are resisting the calls, saying increasing booster jabs would be less disruptive to the economy.
How fast are Covid cases actually rising?
As of Tuesday (19 October), data from gov.uk showed the number of new cases of Covid reported has been above 40,000 for seven days in a row. On Monday, it hit 49,156, the highest since July, while deaths rose to 223 on Tuesday, the highest since March (although daily figures do tend to be higher on Tuesday because deaths over the weekend aren’t reported until then).
On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (20 October), Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said one in five intensive care beds are currently occupied by patients with Covid.
What is Covid plan B?
The government’s current strategy to limit the spread of Covid includes persuading as many people as possible to be vaccinated, maintaining its test-and-trace programme, extra support for the NHS and social care, and an international vaccine programme. That’s known as plan A.
But what if that isn’t enough? In September, the government outlined its plan B – additional measures to put in place if cases start to rise sharply. It comes in three parts: first, communicating “clearly and urgently” with the public that the risk level has increased; second, introducing a “mandatory vaccine-only Covid status certification in certain settings” (otherwise known as a vaccine passport); third, a return to legally mandated mask-wearing.
The vaccine passport is likely to be the most controversial measure. When it was suggested for nightclubs back in April, the government became caught in the crossfire of an ongoing battle between two groups: one claiming it was clubbers’ duty to get a passport, and the other calling the scheme discriminatory. In the end, it dropped the plans altogether.
Why is the NHS Confederation so keen on introducing plan B now?
On the Today programme, Taylor said that the NHS is “right at the edge”, and there is a risk it will “stumble into a crisis”.
In a statement, the Confederation called for “plan B plus” – additional measures on top of the original plan B that would help to ease the pressure on the NHS this winter. That includes asking the public to get their vaccines – including booster jabs – when they are offered to them, turning up for healthcare appointments on time, using front-line services like ambulances sparingly, and volunteering to support the NHS if they can.
“The NHS is seeing worrying increases in coronavirus cases in its hospitals and the community at a time when it is preparing for a busy winter period, its staff are close to burnout, and it is being expected to recover many of its services that were disrupted by the pandemic,” it added.
“The extent of this recovery could be at risk without pre-emptive action over winter from the government and the public.”
Does plan B mean the UK will have a winter lockdown?
The UK government’s outline of its plan B does not include lockdown measures. On the BBC this morning, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng was emphatic that the government will do everything it can to avoid another lockdown.
“I don’t want to inject any hint of complacency but I think so far our approach is working,” he said. He added that he did not want to put the economy’s “hard-won gains” at risk.
Could the new “Delta plus” Covid variant lead to a winter lockdown?
Scientists have identified a new variant of Covid, known as AY.4.2, or “Delta plus”. Data published on 15 October showed it made up 6 per cent of new Covid cases.
The variant was officially identified in July, but scientists have so far decided not to designate it a variant of concern: there’s no evidence to suggest it’s resistant to vaccines or more transmissible than its counterparts.
So although a sharp spike in the number of Covid cases may eventually lead the government to implement a winter lockdown, it’s unlikely that the Delta plus variant will be the main cause of that.
[See also: Is the UK heading for another lockdown? Don’t bet on it]