Health bodies demand ‘cautious and evidence-led approach’ to ending Covid-19 rules

Any move to scrap remaining Covid-19 restrictions must be done with caution and with the backing of “sound” scientific evidence, nursing and other health leaders have warned.

Next week the government is expected to outline its plan for “living with Covid-19”, which is rumoured to include ending legal requirements to self-isolate and axing free lateral flow tests.

“Our members, for whom this pandemic is far from over, need to know there is a sound scientific basis for doing it”

Pat Cullen

However, the Royal College of Nursing today claimed that a scientific basis for making such changes had not yet been presented.

In addition, the college said clarity was needed on what these proposals would mean for health and care and what they should do if they contract Covid-19.

It warned that the government needed to produce a separate and specific plan for nursing staff that recognised their role working with vulnerable people.

Free lateral flow tests must also be retained for health and care workers, said the RCN.

RCN general secretary and chief executive, Pat Cullen, said: “Ending the legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive test is a big leap in the dark.

“Our members, for whom this pandemic is far from over, need to know there is a sound scientific basis for doing it.”

She added that the government must not “pass the buck” to individual nursing staff and their employers to decide whether to continue with self-isolation.

“Health and social care isn’t like other sectors – staff treat some of the most vulnerable in society whose wellbeing, and their own, mustn’t be put at risk,” said Ms Cullen.

Meanwhile, the NHS Confederation has today published the findings of a poll it carried out with more than 300 of senior leaders in the NHS in England about the plans for living with Covid-19.

Nearly eight in 10 (79%) strongly disagreed or disagreed with stopping free access to Covid-19 tests for the public, with 94% feeling the same about NHS staff and other key workers. NHS staff are currently required to test at home twice a week.

Three quarters (75%) of health leaders who responded to the survey disagreed or strongly disagreed with the proposal to change the legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive result to being advisory only.

“A lot is at stake for the NHS’s recovery ambitions if the government is too gung-ho in its plans for exiting the pandemic”

Matthew Taylor

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said, while hospital admissions and deaths linked to Covid-19 were falling nationally, the pandemic was not over.

“So much is uncertain still, including our long-term immunity and the emergence of future strains, which requires a solid testing infrastructure and clear guidance around self-isolation to remain in place,” he said.

“A lot is at stake for the NHS’s recovery ambitions if the government is too gung-ho in its plans for exiting the pandemic, which is why health leaders are calling for a cautious and evidence-led approach. This must not be driven by political expediency.”

Doctors’ union the British Medical Association (BMA) said ending remaining Covid-19 restrictions now would be “premature”.

It pointed to latest data showing that around one in 20 people in England were infected with Covid-19 last week, with 4,000 more Covid-19 patients in hospital across the UK now than when Plan B measures were introduced in December.

“The decision to remove all restrictions is not based on current evidence and is premature,” said Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair.

“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.”

He added that removing free testing and self-isolation requirements would make it impossible to accurately monitor the spread of the virus and respond to local outbreaks.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are hugely grateful to all NHS and care staff who have gone above and beyond and we continue to support them.

“Thanks to our phenomenal vaccine rollout, antivirals and testing programme we are one of the freest countries in Europe.

“We continue to monitor the data closely and next week we will set out our plans on how we will live with Covid-19 in the long term.”