'Glad' about delay in restrictions being lifted

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, British Medical Association (BMA), chair of council, writes:

I am glad the government has listened to the BMA and others like us who, in recent days, made clear the need for the current restrictions in England to remain in place for a few more weeks.

As the prime minister and chief medical officer said, the number of cases in England has gone up 64 per cent compared with the previous week, and we know that the highly transmissible Delta variant accounts for the vast majority of those infections. According to the latest data, the average weekly number of people admitted to hospital in England with Covid-19 has increased by 50pc in the past week, and in the North West the rise is 61pc. Even a small further increase could compromise the ability of doctors to tackle the backlog of non-Covid cases.

We are without doubt, in a phase where cases of the virus are spiralling, but the data we have still doesn’t yet show the full impact of this or of the easing of restrictions on May 17. Furthermore, the more people who have the virus, the more likely it is that new variants of concern will emerge and numbers of those with longer term ill health following infection will increase. So, it is important to do whatever we can to avoid high levels of virus circulating in the community.

We know that vaccinating as many people as possible is a powerful weapon in combatting the virus. It is positive that the government is committed to ensuring that two-thirds of the adult population are fully vaccinated by July 19, although it should be remembered that maximum protection is not achieved until two weeks after the second dose. It is also of note that all adults will be offered their first dose by the same date - this is especially important given that younger unvaccinated people are at far greater risk of becoming infected and a not insignificant proportion may be at risk of becoming severely ill.

The government has committed to reviewing the data on a daily basis, and it must now use these next four weeks to forensically analyse the data as it emerges. This needs to include the extent to which new cases translate to severe illness and how many people then need treatment in a hospital. The impact on hospitalisations will take at least two more weeks to become apparent and any increase in the death rate won’t really be seen for at least another two weeks after that. We also need to understand the impact of long-Covid and do all we can to reduce the risk. If not, it will lead to long staff absences, which in turn will impact businesses and the health service.

Crucially, while the prime minister says he reserves the right to lift restrictions earlier than July 19 if the data shows risk diminishing, he must also be prepared for the opposite, based on the government’s own four tests – and not be led by arbitrary fixed dates.

Meanwhile, vital support and resources must reach public health teams so they can effectively tackle regional outbreaks.

This pause is also an opportunity to review which measures should be eased and consider what infection control measures will be required to keep the virus at bay over the summer and beyond. Now is a critical time for the government to decide what steps are needed to head off a possible third wave later in the summer and not a minute must be wasted.

Remember businesses

Richard Burge, chief executive, London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, writes:

If the data says that a delay in further restriction easing protects the health of their staff and customers, then, as they have done all pandemic, businesses will play their part.

But the government must ensure that businesses directly and indirectly impacted by this delay are sufficiently supported.

Businesses that cannot open their doors, or those in quiet city centre areas like the City of London that were banking on a return of commuters from June 21, should not have to now pay increased furlough contribution. Nor is it the right time for the business rates holiday to end. Plus many of these directly and indirectly impacted businesses, and those who are self-employed in impacted sectors, will also require further financial support.
In London these issues are further exacerbated by the curtailment of international business travel.

The government must use this delay period to ensure that we finally have a border system in place that allows for sustainable economic recovery. Otherwise we will not capitalise upon the success of the NHS vaccination programme.