Covid threat being ignored in England for ideological reasons, say NHS leaders

Ministers should reconsider England’s “living with Covid” plans, health leaders have said, while accusing the government of ignoring the ongoing threat for ideological reasons.

Kevin Rawlinson www.theguardian.com 

The NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the healthcare sector, has accused No 10 of having “abandoned any interest” in the pandemic, despite a new Omicron surge putting pressure on an already overstretched NHS.

“The brutal reality for staff and patients is that this Easter in the NHS is as bad as any winter,” said Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation.

“But instead of the understanding and support NHS staff received during 2020 and 2021, we have a government that seems to want to wash its hands of responsibility for what is occurring in plain sight in local services up and down the country. No 10 has seemingly abandoned any interest in Covid whatsoever.

“NHS leaders and their teams feel abandoned by the government and they deserve better.”

Taylor later told BBC Breakfast: “In our view, we do not have a ‘living with Covid’ plan, we have a ‘living without restrictions’ ideology, which is different. We need to put in place the measures that are necessary to try to alleviate the pressures on our health service while this virus continues to affect [it].”

He said ministers should restate advice promoting mask-wearing on public transport to try to cut the number of infections and, consequently, the demand on the NHS.

“We need to renew the call for people to have vaccinations and booster vaccinations – there are still a lot of people out there who are not up to date with the vaccinations that they could have,” he said.

“We need to resource the health service. At the moment, for example, the health service is providing free tests for its staff, which it needs to do because staff absences are really high in the NHS because of Covid. But the NHS has to pay for those tests. So, we need to put the resource in. Because we’re behaving as if this pandemic is over, but it is not over in relation to the challenges facing the health service.”

A new Omicron wave has been putting immense pressure on the NHS. Last week, health bosses in England issued an extraordinary plea for families to help them discharge loved ones – even if they were Covid-positive – saying the service faced a “perfect storm” fuelled by heavy demand, severe staff shortages and soaring cases.

“Our concern is that there is a lack of awareness and engagement with the pressures health service is under. And it’s particularly felt in hospitals [and] in the ambulance service – but it’s actually across the system as a whole,” Taylor said.

“Although, of course, we’re much better at dealing with Covid than we have been in the past – fewer people die, fewer people end up in intensive care – it is still a disease that puts immense pressure on the health service. It is … adding to the demand which already exists – partly to do with the number of people who are waiting for treatment, which built up during Covid.

“So we have a situation in our health service now which is as bad as any winter, even though we’re approaching Easter.”

Taylor said that to make matters worse, the Treasury had “taken bites out of the already very tight NHS budget”, while soaring inflation meant the NHS settlement was now worthless. “It is now unclear that anyone in the centre of government feels the unfolding NHS crisis is their responsibility,” the FT quoted him as saying.

A No 10 spokesperson said: “There is no change to our guidance and our living with Covid plan still stands. Thanks to a combination of vaccination and treatment and our better understanding of the virus, we are now able to manage it as we do with other respiratory infections, so that remains the case with our approach. But, obviously, we continue to monitor any changes in the behaviour of the virus.”

Asked about the confederation’s view that NHS leaders felt abandoned by the government, the spokesperson said: “We are incredibly grateful to NHS staff who worked flat out throughout the pandemic and continue to do so in the face of Covid backlogs.”