The UK needs to bring back Covid measures to tackle soaring cases ahead of a ‘brutal’ Easter, an NHS chief has warned.
The NHS Confederation, which represents healthcare organisations, said a refusal by Downing Street to tackle a spike in new cases risked “abandoning” the health service.
Boris Johnson’s government must revamp its ‘living with Covid’ plan to combat continuing high infection rates and hospitalisations, the body says.
The warning came after the number of Covid infections remained near or at record levels in most of the UK for the second week, following the lifting of all restrictions earlier this year.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics published on Friday show one in 13 people across the country were thought to have had the illness in the week ending 2 April.
Hospitalization figures also remained high. Some 20,000 people were receiving treatment on wards on 7 April, the latest date for which government figures were available.
Matthew Taylor, the NHS confederation chief executive, said health care leaders recognized there was a need to “live with Covid” but that they reported a “clear disconnect” between Downing Street’s strategy and the “realities” [medics] are facing on the front line”.
“The brutal reality for staff and patients is that this Easter in the NHS is as bad as any winter,” he said.
“But instead of the understanding and support NHS staff received during 2020 and 2021, we have a government that seems to want to wash its hands of responsibility for what is occurring in plain sight in local services up and down the country.”
Mr Taylor suggested that the government had “seemingly abandoned any interest in Covid whatsoever” following the axing of all remaining Covid regulations on 24 February.
The government’s living with Covid plan meant that people were no longer legally required to self-isolate after testing positive for the infection.
Free testing for the virus ended on 1 April.
The NHS confederation in a statement on Saturday called for the government to “reconsider its ‘living with Covid’ plan and introduce mitigating actions that will help avoid further critical incidents being declared at the NHS front-line.”
Previous restrictions have included mask wearing in crowded, public places and restrictions on social gatherings.
The organization said that in the last week alone 20 emergency departments in England have been forced to turn patients away as they issued “diverts” due to being too full.
Mr Taylor said: “We urgently need stronger messages to the public on taking precautions to reduce opportunities for the virus to spread and getting booster vaccinations.
“We need to be realistic about what the NHS can be expected to achieve in the face of very high Covid levels, rising demand for urgent and emergency care, and backlog pressures.”
He added: “We also need proper Covid funding to continue until the virus is genuinely under control and we need a medium-term plan for reducing the risk of respiratory diseases including mask wearing and ventilation in public spaces.
“Covid is far from over as ministers appear to want to believe and we urge them to get a grip on this – both for the current spike in infections but also for potential future ones.”
Speaking to broadcasters on Monday morning, Mr Taylor said ministers should reconsider asking the NHS to foot the bill for Covid-19 tests for staff – estimated to cost the NHS “several hundred million pounds” which is being taken away from patient care.
Mr Taylor said that the nation was “behaving as if this pandemic is over, but it is not over in relation to the challenges facing the health service”.
I have told BBC Breakfast: “There is a lack of awareness of engagement pressures the health service is under and it’s particularly felt in hospitals at the ambulance service, but it’s actually across the system as a whole.
“Because although we’re much better at dealing with Covid, with fewer people dying and ending up in intensive care, it is still a disease that puts immense pressure on the health service.
“It is adding to the demand which already exists – partly to do with the number of people who are waiting for treatment.
“So we have a situation in our health service now which is as bad as any winter, even though we’re approaching Easter and it’s really important that we understand that this has happening.
“In our view, we do not have a ‘Living with Covid’ plan, we have a ‘living without restrictions’ ideology, which is different. We need to put in place the measures that are necessary to try to alleviate the pressures on our health service while this virus continues to attack.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “The success of our vaccination and antivirals programs alongside increased public understanding on managing risk means we can start living with Covid – with public health guidance and free testing focused on groups who are most at risk from the virus.
“We are incredibly grateful to NHS staff and we have set out our plan to tackle the Covid backlog and deliver long-term recovery and reform, backed by our record multibillion-pound investment over the next three years.
“We are on track to deliver 50,000 more nurses by 2024, there are over 4,300 more doctors compared to last year, and we are investing hundreds of millions in growing the workforce.”