'Irresponsible' decision to relax COVID-19 rules puts NHS and patients at risk, say doctors

The government's decision to press ahead with relaxing COVID-19 restrictions despite rising cases and hospitalisations - along with 'mixed messaging' over masks - have been condemned as 'irresponsible and perilous' by senior doctors.

BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul (Photo: JH Lancy)

Doctors' leaders accused the government of 'reneging on its own promise to be led by data and impact on the NHS' after ministers confirmed plans to relax COVID-19 restrictions would go ahead on 19 July. The warning comes after GPonline reported last week on a warning from the BMA that relaxing the rules would have a major impact on GP workload.

BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul warned the decision to press ahead with relaxing rules despite cases now at a level last seen in January and continuing to rise - and more than 3,000 patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19 in the week to 6 July - would give the virus 'an opportunity to retighten its grip'.

He warned that the result of relaxing rules now would be 'pushing infection rates up, increasing hospitalisations and people ill with long COVID, risking new vaccine-resistant variants developing, and putting more lives at unnecessary risk'.

Face coverings

Accusing the government of 'mixed messaging of the highest order' over the need to wear masks to help prevent infections, the BMA chair added: 'While the government has said it will continue to encourage the wearing of face coverings after the 19th, within the same breath ministers confirm that masks will not be mandatory.

'This is contradictory and shows the government absolving itself of responsibility while heaping pressure on the public.'

Londonwide LMCs chief executive Dr Michelle Drage warned it was 'unfair and unrealistic' to expect GP practices 'singlehandedly' to enforce a recommendation for patients to continue wearing masks 'after a week of the government telling people mask wearing will no longer be a requirement'. Dr Drage warned that practices were already facing abuse - and warned a lack of clarity over masks could deepen the problem.

Health union Unite and the NHS Confederation have also both warned that masks should remain compulsory in healthcare settings.

Mixed messages

Polling by the BMA released before the government confirmed plans to relax COVID-19 rules would go ahead found that nine in 10 doctors believe face coverings should remain compulsory on public transport. The BMA also warned that doctors would be deeply concerned about the impact of scrapping requirements around face coverings and social distancing in healthcare settings.

BMA chair Dr Nagpaul said: 'The BMA has repeatedly warned of the rapidly rising infection rate and the crippling impact that COVID-related hospitalisations continue to have on the NHS, not only pushing staff to the brink of collapse but also driving up already lengthy waiting times for elective care.

'We already know hospitals are struggling - with at least one already cancelling cancer treatments - so how will they cope with the 1,000 to 2,000 COVID-19 hospital admissions the government’s own modelling projects?

'This is all before we consider the significant number of people at risk of, or already living with, long COVID - and the long-term impact this will have on individuals, the health service, education and the economy.'

Practices facing abuse

Londonwide LMCs chief executive Dr Drage added: 'With COVID-19 prevalent, and growing, in the community it is clear that masks should still be worn in healthcare settings to protect staff and vulnerable patients. It is unfair and unrealistic to expect general practice staff to single-handedly inform patients of this and enforce it, especially after a week of the government telling people mask wearing will no longer be a requirement as of Monday.

'NHS England and government ministers need to get the message out at a national level that staff in general practice, and across the NHS, are working as hard as they can, and those on the other side of the reception desk, the consulting room or at the end of the phone are people, not a faceless sounding board for frustrations.

'London practice staff are already receiving profanity-filled letters and text messages in response to vaccination reminders, and those making calls are getting abuse and threatened with being reported to regulators, and even with violence, all just for doing as instructed by the NHS.'

Outlining plans to relax COVID-19 restrictions in parliament on 12 July, health and social care secretary Sajid Javid admitted that infection rates were likely to rise – possibly reaching 100,000 cases a day – after the rules changed, and that hospitalisations would also increase.

But he added that the vaccine programme had 'severely weakened' the link between the number of cases and hospital admissions and the NHS would not see the numbers admitted that it had in previous waves of the pandemic.

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