UK COVID-19 Update: Nurses Prepare for Strike Over Pay Plan, and UK Infection Levels Fall Again

Peter Russell

March 05, 2021

These are the UK coronavirus stories you need to know about today.

Nurses Set Up Strike Fund Over 1% Pay Rise Plan

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) announced plans for possible strike action over a proposed 1% pay increase for NHS workers.

The RCN described the proposed pay award as "pitiful" and accused the Government of making nurses pay for the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jonathan Ashworth, Labour's shadow health secretary, told Sky News it was "an absolute kick in the teeth".

Public services union UNISON, which has campaigned for all NHS workers to receive a pay rise of at least £2000 to show its appreciation for employees, said staff would regard the proposal as "some kind of joke".

However, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), said a pay rise should be seen against the backdrop of planned pay freezes across the rest of the public sector.

A Government spokesperson said: “Over one million NHS staff continue to benefit from multi-year pay deals agreed with trade unions, which have delivered a pay rise of over 12% for newly qualified nurses and will increase junior doctors' pay scales by 8.2%."

The DHSC said that COVID-19 had placed a huge strain on both public and NHS finances, and economic uncertainty in the current financial year meant that any pay award must be both fair and affordable.

The headline figure of 1% is subject to review by independent pay bodies, which will report in late spring.

The RCN called for nurses to receive a 12.5% increase in pay. Chief Executive and General Secretary Dame Donna Kinnair said the Government was "dangerously out of touch with nursing staff, NHS workers, and the public".

She said: "If the pay review body accepts the Government view, a pay award as poor as this would amount to only an extra £3.50 per week take-home pay for an experienced nurse.

"Nobody would think that is fair in the middle of a pandemic and it will do nothing to prevent the exodus from nursing."

The RCN announced it was setting up a £35 million industrial action fund to support workers in the event of a strike.

UK Infection Levels Continue to Drop

Levels of infection with SARS-CoV-2 have continued to fall across the UK, new data showed.

The latest weekly infection survey from the Office for National Statistics for the week ending February 27 showed there were an estimated 248,100 people within the community population in England with COVID-19, equating to around 1 in 220 people. That compared with 373,700 in the previous week, or 1 in 145 people.

Reductions were seen in all other nations of the UK. There were:

  • An estimated 10,600 people in Wales with COVID-19, or around 1 in 285 people

  • 5700 people in Northern Ireland, equating to around 1 in 325 people

  • An estimated 15,600 people in Scotland, equating to around 1 in 335 people

In England, the percentage of people testing positive decreased in all regions except for the North East, East Midlands, and East of England where the trend was uncertain.

The percentage of people testing positive with cases compatible with the new UK variant decreased in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. However, there was uncertainty whether that was the case in Scotland.

Sarah Crofts, senior statistician for the COVID-19 Infection Survey, said that new charts showing how infection rates have varied across ages over time revealed that infections had "dropped in over 70s in England, potentially as a result of the vaccine rollout".

Overall, the percentage of people testing positive in England decreased in all age groups except school years 7 and 11 where the trend remained uncertain, the figures suggested.

Ms Crofts said: "Infections continue to head in the right direction across the UK, with levels now similar to what we saw in early October and around a quarter of levels seen at the start of the year."

The analysis was based on 684,875 tests gathered from across the UK.

Latest Data

The latest R number for the UK is 0.7 to 0.9 with a growth range of -5% to -3%. That is a slight change from last week's 0.6 to 0.9.

Commenting on the latest figure, Prof John Edmunds from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine said he thought that the "era of the R number is coming to an end".

He explained that "the growth or decline in hospitalisations is now critical, not the overall R number".

Daily data on infections, mortality, and vaccinations were not available due to a delay in the submission of cases data to Public Health England.

£79 million Ringfenced to Support Children's Mental Wellbeing

Ahead of next week's return to face-to-face learning in schools in England, the Government said it was committed to expanding access to community mental health services.

The Department of Health and Social Care said it would give 22,500 more children and young people access to help and support by 2021 to 2022, including talking therapies and cognitive behavioural therapy.

Claire Murdoch, NHS mental health director, acknowledged that the pandemic "has turned our lives upside down and hit children and young people particularly hard".

Ministers said that £79 million would be allocated to children's mental health services from the £500 million allocated to mental health in the 2021 to 2022 spending review.

Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, commented: "Over the past year, our young people have faced a whole load of additional challenges, including school closures, loneliness and isolation, and the knock-on effect of the recession causing problems for families such as debt, unemployment, housing and access to benefits.

"There is still lots more work to be done to ensure that every young person gets the support they need for their mental health. But this is a positive step forward in cementing mental health at the heart of recovery from the pandemic and beyond."

Italy and the EU Block Oxford Vaccine Shipment to Australia

Italy and the European Commission have issued an export denial for a consignment of 250,700 doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford COVID-19 vaccine to Australia.

Italy made the request to block the shipment from its Anagni plant near Rome because of the ongoing shortage of vaccines in the EU.

It said that Australia was considered "non-vulnerable" within the meaning of new export regulations introduced by the EU at the end of January in an effort to secure its own supplies.

The Anglo-Swedish drug manufacturer has been involved in a long running contractual dispute with the European Union over deliveries of its vaccine.

This week, both Germany and France lifted previous guidance not to offer the Oxford vaccine to the over-65s.

Medal for Oxford Vaccine Scientist

Vaccinologist Prof Sarah Gilbert was announced as the recipient of this year's Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) Albert Medal for her work as project leader for the ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine.

The citation acknowledges "her services to collaborative innovation for the global common good".

Mathew Taylor, RSA chief executive, said: "The RSA's Albert Medal celebrates the best in innovation, and the Oxford vaccine is a huge triumph for British creativity, research, and development.

"The path set by Professor Gilbert and her team shows how public, private, and philanthropic sectors can collaborate in the public interest."

Previous medal recipients have included Sir Joseph Lister for his work on antiseptics in medicine, Dr Francis Crick for his contributions to molecular and cell biology, and Marie Curie for the discovery of radium.

Prof Gilbert will formally receive the award on April 14.


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