Responding to calls from NHS leaders for free Covid tests and self-isolation rules to continue ahead of the Government’s Living With Covid Strategy next week, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said:
"It’s clear that we will have to learn to adjust to the reality of Covid-19. However, the BMA agrees with NHS leaders that living with Covid doesn't mean ignoring its continued harm to many, and must not result in removing protections to some of the most vulnerable in our society. Scrapping all restrictions and allowing the infection to spread in an unmonitored and unfettered manner would be damaging to the health of millions, including for those who go on to suffer Long Covid symptoms.
"Without access to free testing for the public or a legal requirement for the sick to self-isolate, protecting others from illness and surveillance of the disease and its prevalence vanishes; we won’t know where outbreaks are happening, whether they are circulating among more vulnerable populations, and this means local public health teams will be lacking key information to be able to respond effectively to Covid outbreaks in their local areas. Charging for tests will only discourage people from checking if they have Covid, especially if their symptoms are mild enough for them to continue socialising and mixing with others.
"Currently, case rates remain exceptionally high. When Plan B measures were introduced in December, there were 7,373 patients in hospital in the UK. While rates are now falling, the latest figure sits at 11,721. The ONS also estimates that around 1 in 20 people in England were infected last week, and there continues to be significant work absence due to Covid.
"The decision to remove all restrictions is not based on current evidence and is premature. It clearly hasn’t been guided by data or done in consultation with the healthcare profession. As the BMA has previously warned, Covid poses a serious risk to public health as well as NHS capacity if cases are allowed to spread rapidly again. Living with Covid-19 doesn’t mean ignoring it. As well as keeping free testing and self-isolation measures, it’s vital that the ONS infection survey carries on, and that local authorities are supported to contain outbreaks with necessary restrictions.
"This is particularly important for protecting the vulnerable, and Government must ensure that these groups are allowed to live as normal a life as possible as the pandemic subsides. This means giving them access to free FFP2/3 masks where required so they can protect themselves, and providing healthcare professionals with clear, clinical guidance to advise them and other patients in the community. Healthcare settings are places which people attend to get better not to get sick, so it would be totally wrong to remove the protections in healthcare settings that currently exist, such as mask wearing, without discussion with healthcare workers and without evidence to support it.
"Only yesterday, the World Health Organisation released updated guidance for contact tracing and quarantine, saying in its report that any interruption or shortening of these measures will increase the risk of onward transmission. Of course, we all want to see a time when measures are no longer needed. However, relaxing them must be done sensibly, based on data, and gradually, in consultation with the profession, and not at the cost of public health or our already-stretched NHS."
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.