UK COVID-19 Update: Surge Testing, Surge Vaccination, GPs Return to Face-to-Face Appointments

Tim Locke

May 14, 2021

Editor's note, 14 May 2021: This article was updated with information from a Downing Street briefing and the Scottish Government.

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

Surge Testing, Surge Vaccination

Surge testing is being deployed in Bolton and other areas where the Indian virus variant B1.617.2 has been detected. 

B1.617.2 cases have risen to 1313 from 520 last week, according to Public Health England (PHE).

Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a Downing Street briefing: "I'm told that if it's only marginally more transmissible we can continue, more or less as planned, but if the variant is significantly more transmissible we're likely to face some hard choices." 

He added: "Following advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, we will accelerate remaining second doses to the over 50s, and those clinically vulnerable right across the country, so that those doses come just 8 weeks after the first dose." 

The PM confirmed Monday's easing of lockdown in England will go ahead: "But I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress."

Chief Medical Adviser Professor Chris Whitty said the Indian variant appeared to be more transmissible than the UK variant and: "We expect over time this variant will overtake and come to dominate in the UK."

There were long queues outside Hirshman’s Chemist in Sefton, Merseyside close to an area where the Indian variant was detected. It announced on social media that vaccination was available for over-20s. 

Wales has confirmed it will move to alert level 2 on Monday with more lockdown easing but First Minister Mark Drakeford said they "held back" on easing some restrictions, such as changing the 2-metre rule, due to variant concerns. "The pandemic isn’t over – the new, so-called Indian variant of concern is another unwanted twist in this pandemic, which we are monitoring closely," he said.

In Scotland, from Monday Glasgow and Moray will stay in Level 3 due to rising cases.

GPs Return to Face-to-Face Appointments

NHS England has written to GP practices saying COVID-safe face-to-face appointments should return from next week ending the 'total triage' system. However, telephone and online consultations can stay in place for patients who benefit from them.

Currently around half of appointments are in-person, and half are carried out remotely.

"Patients and clinicians have a choice of consultation mode," the letter said. "Patients’ input into this choice should be sought and practices should respect preferences for face-to-face care unless there are good clinical reasons to the contrary."

Dr Richard Vautrey, BMA GP committee chair, said: "The letter from NHS England  is sadly completely tone deaf and rather than recognising the efforts GPs are making and the stress they are feeling as a result of the massive workload pressures they are currently experiencing, it has let them down and left them believing their efforts have gone unrecognised."

Earlier this week, a report from the Royal College of GPs said remote consulting should not be the "automatic default".

Jabs 'Saved 11,700 Lives'

Updated PHE data estimate COVID-19 vaccination has prevented 33,000 people aged 65 and over from needing hospital treatment and saved 11,700 lives in people aged 60 and over.

Deaths and cases were compared with those that would have been expected without vaccination.

Head of Immunisation, Dr Mary Ramsay, said: "The vaccine has already saved so many lives and we can now see the huge impact it has had on preventing people becoming seriously ill and therefore also protecting our hospitals."

Extending Pfizer Jab Gap 'Increased Immune Response'

The UK's approach to extending the gap between Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine doses to 12 weeks "significantly increased" the antibody response in over-80s compared to a 3-week interval, according to University of Birmingham led preprint research.

The study looked at 175 people and those having the second dose at 12 weeks saw a SARS-CoV-2 spike specific antibody response 3.5 times higher than the 3-week group.

Those previously infected were excluded.

First author, Dr Helen Parry, said: "This is the first time antibody and cellular responses have been studied when the second vaccine is given after an extended interval. Our study demonstrates that peak antibody responses after the second Pfizer vaccine are markedly enhanced in older people when this is delayed to 12 weeks.

"This research is crucial, particularly in older people, as immune responses to vaccination deteriorate with age. Understanding how to optimise COVID-19 vaccine schedules and maximise immune responses within this age group is vitally important."

'Glaring Omissions' in Social Care Plans

The cross-party Commons Health and Social Care Committee has criticised the Government's "glaring omission" of plans to reform social care in England in white paper proposals.

"The absence of a fully funded plan for social care has the potential to destabilise integrated care systems and undermine their success," the Committee said.

Committee Chair, Jeremy Hunt, said: "We remain concerned about glaring omissions, including the lack of social care reform, and a much-needed overhaul of workforce planning.

“If such issues are addressed the Government has an opportunity to deliver a post-pandemic watershed '1948 moment' for the health and care system, matching the significance of the year the NHS was founded. But if they are not, it will be a wasted opportunity to deliver the truly integrated care required by an ageing population."

ONS

Latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) data show 92% of those who had contact with a positive COVID-19 case in England fully adhered to the self-isolation requirements for 10-days.

Infection survey data show that in the week ending 8 May:

  • Around 1 in 1340 people in England had COVID-19

  • Around 1 in 1250 people in Scotland had COVID-19

  • Around 1 in 4230 people in Wales had COVID-19

  • Around 1 in 1430 people in Northern Ireland had COVID-19

Sarah Crofts from ONS said: "It’s encouraging that infection rates continue to head in the right direction; in England infections are now below 4% of the level seen at the start of the year."

The latest R number for England is 0.8 to 1.1 and the growth rate is -3% to +1% per day.

Separate ONS data show 41% of those surveyed in Great Britain were more positive about attending an event if they were required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test, and said this would make them more likely to attend.

Positive sentiment towards COVID-19 vaccination remains high with 95% of adults reporting either having had a jab, or being likely to have a vaccine if offered.

More News

  • Health unions have accepted NHS Scotland's 4% pay rise backdated to 1 December 2020. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: "We all rely on the hard work and dedication of NHS Scotland, and never more so than during this pandemic." The increase does not apply to doctors and dentists.

  • Two older women who underwent a Descemet's membrane endothelial keratoplasty (DMEK) transplant and later received a COVID-19 mRNA vaccine have presented with symptoms and signs of endothelial graft rejection, according to a new report in the British Journal of Ophthalmology from Moorfields Eye Hospital in London.

  • The Guardian reported on a survey from the charity Pregnant Then Screwed that found nearly 1 in 5 pregnant women were forced to wear a face covering during labour against official guidance.

  • A UK survey of deaf healthcare workers shows many feel frustrated by a lack of transparent masks and adequate communication-support policies. Only 11% of respondents said they had access to transparent masks. More than three-quarters reported feeling anxious and afraid of making mistakes due to communication problems, and 17% were removed from clinical roles due to a lack of appropriate workplace adaptations.

  • Fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks in most indoor and outdoor settings, the CDC announced.

  • Portugal is extending its 'state of calamity' until at least May 30. However, the country will still allow travel from the UK with a negative PCR test from Monday.

See more global coronavirus updates in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.

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