With the Westminster Government expected to make an announcement next Monday about ending restrictions on the 21st June, the BMA says this fourth stage of the roadmap should not go ahead a until there is a better understanding of the implications of the rapidly rising number of cases. The Association says the situation should be reviewed on a fortnightly basis guided by the data.
Cases of COVID-19 have risen rapidly since the relaxing of some restrictions in May and the emergence of the Delta variant, and it is still not clear to what extent the surge in cases will lead to more people needing hospital care. Evidence in hot spot areas of Delta variants is already showing increases in hospitalisation and the number of patients in intensive care nationally is twice the lowest level achieved last summer.
The number of patients in hospital with COVID-19 is currently low but even a slight increase in that number could significantly impact NHS services. There are more than five million patients on waiting lists, with almost 400,000 having waited more than a year for much needed treatment. There is not the resilience or capacity in the health system to deal with any surge of COVID-19 patients and which would undermine the work to tackle the biggest backlog of care the NHS has ever faced.
A further delay would also allow the NHS to properly vaccinate and protect its population. We know that the Delta variant, now dominant in the UK, is more resistant to the vaccine, requiring a second dose for full protection, with immunity not achieved for about two weeks after. A race to vaccinate people by 21 June would not therefore achieve protection until weeks after.
Importantly, the current data and evidence shows that ending restrictions in just over a week would not meet the government’s own four tests, and it is vital that the Prime Minister honours his own commitment to the population on how to safeguard the health of the nation.
A sensible delay to ending restriction would also be in the wider interest of the working population and society. The risk posed to the economy, education, businesses and welfare would be greater with a premature end to restrictions if it resulted in further illness and lockdowns. Workplaces and employers will also be affected if rapid spread in the community resulted in staff becoming ill or needing to self-isolate. An estimated million Britons are already suffering with Long-COVID and the risks of these long-term harms must also be a factored into the government’s deliberations.
The Chair of the BMA Council, Dr Chaand Nagpaul said:
“The UK’s vaccination programme has been a tremendous success, and this, together with the hard work and sacrifices of so many, and measures such as social distancing and mask wearing, has helped us come a long way in our fight against this terrible virus. However, case numbers are now rising rapidly, and we know that those who are unvaccinated or have had only one dose of the vaccine remain vulnerable to getting the virus. The best protection is only achieved at about two weeks after the second dose, particularly with the Delta variant, and we will not have enough of the population properly protected by June 21.
“With only 54.2% of the adult population currently fully vaccinated and many younger people not yet eligible, there is a huge risk that prematurely relaxing all restrictions will undo the excellent work of the vaccine programme and lead to a surge of infections. It’s not just about the number of hospitalisations, but also the risk to the health of large numbers of younger people, who can suffer long-term symptoms affecting their lives and ability to work.
“Importantly, the current data and evidence shows that ending restrictions in just over a week would not meet the Government’s own four tests, and it is vital that the Prime Minister honours his own commitment to the population on how to safeguard the health of the nation.”
The co-chair of the BMA’s Public Health Medicine Committee Dr Penelope Toff said:
“The steep rise in case numbers in parts of England, such as the North West, with hospitalisation rates up by 66% in the past week alone, is mainly due to the Delta variant but it has also been partly fuelled by the easing of restrictions in May. This has also meant that it has been impossible for Public Health services in many areas to fully contain the spread.
“A delay in a decision about easing the remaining lockdown restrictions could put us in a much stronger position. It would mean the chance to vaccinate even more people with first and second doses, particularly younger people where we are seeing the highest proportion of infections. This in turn will help to keep down the spread of the virus in the community, which is also important if we want to minimise the opportunity for new variants to emerge.”
Notes to editors
The BMA is a trade union and professional association representing and negotiating on behalf of all doctors in the UK. A leading voice advocating for outstanding health care and a healthy population. An association providing members with excellent individual services and support throughout their lives.