UK COVID-19 Update: PM 'Restoring Freedoms', Staffing Pressures, NHS George Cross

Tim Locke

July 05, 2021

Editor's note: This article was updated with information from a Downing Street briefing.

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

PM 'Restoring Freedoms'

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said a decision on the final easing of England's COVID-19 restrictions on 19 July will be taken next Monday.

"I want to stress from the outset that this pandemic is far from over," he told a Downing Street briefing. There could be 50,000 cases a day by 19 July, he said.

Earlier he'd promised to set out "how we can restore people’s freedoms".

The PM said vaccination is progressing and the jabs are working: "As the days have gone by, it has grown ever clearer that these vaccines are indeed successful with a majority of those admitted to hospital unvaccinated." 

He said the vaccine dose interval for under-40s will reduce from 12 weeks to 8, "so that everyone over-18 should be double jabbed by the middle of September."

The legal instructions to wear face coverings will end along with limits on the number of people meeting indoors, and the end of home working.

Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance reviewed the latest data:  "Hospitalisations are rising, and rising quite steeply in some places, and we would expect them to continue. So essentially what this shows is that the vaccines have weakened the link between cases and hospitalisation. But it's a weakened link, not a completely broken link."

Chief Medical Adviser Professor Chris Whitty was asked about pressure on the NHS. "The winter is inevitably going to be tricky and this winter the NHS is likely to have both COVID and some resurgence of other respiratory viruses that were suppressed by the degree of lockdown last time round," he said.

"So I think we should be realistic and this coming winter may be very difficult for the NHS."

Prof Whitty was also asked about when he'd still wear a mask.

"The first is in any situation which was indoors and crowded, or indoors with close proximity to other people. And that is because masks help protect other people, this is a thing we do to protect other people, this is by far its principal aim," he said.

"The second situation I’d do it is if I was required to by any competent authority I would have no hesitation about doing that. And I would consider that was a reasonable and sensible thing if they had good reasons to do that. 

"And the third reason is if someone else was uncomfortable if I did not wear a mask as a point of common courtesy of course I would wear a mask."

Commenting via the Science Media Centre ahead of the announcement, Dominic Wilkinson, professor of medical ethics, University of Oxford, said: "Some have claimed that the Government is not 'following the science' in planning to relax the rules. However, science cannot tell us when to unlock. That depends on what we choose to prioritise. Like all major policy decisions during this pandemic, decisions about relaxing restrictions are not purely scientific. These are ethical questions."

Image credit: PA Media

BMA Urged Caution

At the weekend, the BMA urged Mr Johnson to keep some targeted measures in place, citing weekly cases in England being up 74% on the previous 7 days, and COVID-19 hospital admissions rising by 55% over the last week.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said: "Our appeal is to both the Government to keep appropriate measures in place, and to the public to continue acting in a careful, responsible manner – giving other people space, wearing face coverings in areas where physical distancing isn’t possible and recognising that the virus won’t simply stop posing a serious danger in 2 weeks’ time."

Mask Choice

Honesty

Sajid Javid wrote in the Mail on Sunday that "we have to be honest with people about the fact that we cannot eliminate COVID-19.

"We also need to be clear that cases are going to rise significantly. I know many people will be cautious about the easing of restrictions – that’s completely understandable. But no date we choose will ever come without risk, so we have to take a broad and balanced view. We are going to have to learn to accept the existence of COVID-19 and find ways to cope with it – just as we already do with flu."

He acknowledged that restrictions led to the "build-up of a vast 'elective' backlog – checks, appointments, and treatments for all the less urgent, but often just as important, health issues".

Staffing Pressures

The Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) released details of its census in Scotland which it said shows the need for:

  • 25% more consultants

  • 45% more advanced clinical practitioners/advanced nursing practitioners/physician associates

  • 21% more junior doctors

RCEM Scotland Vice President, Dr John Thomson, said: "The census clearly shows that the emergency medicine workforce in Scotland is not adequately staffed to deliver the highest quality patient care. This has led to an increase in intense pressures on the existing workforce and is very likely to be a contributing factor to the continued deterioration in performance."

A Royal College of Physicians survey found that more than a quarter of senior consultant physicians expect to retire within 3 years, many within 18 months, while 56% of trainees entering the NHS are interested in working part-time.

College President, Dr Andrew Goddard, said: "It is right that we should celebrate the achievements of healthcare staff during the pandemic as we mark the NHS’s birthday, but the pressures we have faced have been greater than they needed to be because of existing staffing shortages. If we do not address this problem we will have much less to celebrate in future."

NHS George Cross

The NHS received a 73rd birthday honour in the form of the George Cross. It is only the third time it has been bestowed collectively.

In a hand-written message, the Queen wrote: "It is with great pleasure, on behalf of a grateful nation, that I award the George Cross to the National Health Services of the United Kingdom.

"This award recognises all NHS staff, past and present, across all disciplines and all four nations.

"Over more than seven decades, and especially in recent times, you have supported the people of our country with courage, compassion and dedication, demonstrating the highest standards of public service.

"You have our enduring thanks and heartfelt appreciation."

The BMA called it  "a worthy honour for all NHS staff who have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic".

Many NHS staff, vaccine experts, and some patients attended a service of commemoration and thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

The Duchess of Cambridge was due to attend the event but is self-isolating after coming into contact with someone who later tested positive, Kensington Palace said.

Ahead of the service, Matthias Schmid, head of the Department of Infection and Tropical Medicine at Newcastle Hospitals, said: "Although this was a new and emerging challenge we were ready for it and were hopeful that we could gain time for the rest of the NHS to introduce all the necessary changes required to face this pandemic.

"We’re very proud of the care we offered patients and the high standards of treatment delivered by the team during a hugely testing time."

At the weekend, landmarks, including the London Eye and Wembley Stadium, were lit up blue as a tribute to the NHS.

https://twitter.com/NHSEnglandLDN/status/1411425780937154560?s=20

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

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