On 22 September, prime minister Boris Johson introduced further social distancing measures to curb increasing COVID-19 cases in England, including a U-turn on encouraging people to return to working in offices and a 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants.
Devolved nations have gone further by banning separate households from meeting together indoors, with Scotland and Northern Ireland also ruling that 'rule of six' meetings should involve adults from a maximum of two separate households.
Numbers of COVID-19 infections have risen steadily over the past week, with the UK recording 4,926 cases on 22 September - the highest figure since 7 May.
Social distancing measures
The BMA has argued that further action is needed on top of the government's latest measures to prevent further lockdowns and 'significant disruption' to the health system and economy.
It has suggested that the ‘rule of six’ should be revised, and repeated calls for face masks in offices and other work spaces The trade union also insists that people should have greater access to local infection rates.
Responding to the latest COVID-19 measures laid out by Boris Johnson, BMA council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul, said: ‘It’s encouraging that the government has, at last, recognised the need for more stringent measures to control the virus’s spread. But there are a number of further actions which it could take to prevent a second peak.
‘The prime minister missed an opportunity to revise the "rule of six" which, as currently interpreted, allows members of six different households to meet indoors whereas previously members of only two households could do so. Data suggests that transmission between households is by far the biggest driver of infection, and this should therefore be rectified at the earliest possible opportunity.
‘The government must also do more to make the public aware of the rate of infection in their areas – people should be able to look up local infection rates in the same way they can the weather or pollen count. Members of the public want to do their bit to keep infection rates down – ministers must empower them with the information they need to take proactive action.’
The BMA has previously warned that COVID-19 infection rates will ‘soar’ and the NHS will ‘once again be crippled’ if the government fails to implement strong social distancing measures. It has also urged the government 'to get a grip' on testing, with demand outstripping current capacity.
Dr Nagpaul argued that rules forcing staff in shops, pubs and restaurants to wear masks should also apply to offices and other workplaces, adding the virus was just as likely to spread in any indoor setting.
The BMA chair supported the prime minister’s decision to encourage people to work from home, but insisted that the government had to do more to ensure COVID-secure workplaces for those where home working is not possible.
‘Not only would these additional measures pose no risk to the economy in the immediate term, they could be key to preventing further lockdowns and significant disruption to business and economic activity. Indeed, putting the right safeguards in place to minimise the risk of infection is crucial to providing people with the confidence they need to go out safely and boost the economy,’ he added.
On 21 September the government raised the UK's COVID-19 alert level to four and said that GPs will be prioritised for testing along with other essential workers. This came after government advisors warned that the UK could see 50,000 COVID-19 cases per day by mid-October at current rates.