Plan B has come to an end. There are clearly political benefits to easing COVID-19 restrictions, but we should pause and reflect on why we adhered to these restrictions in the first place. Because that helps answer the key question: should we really be abandoning a range of behaviour changes that were designed to hinder the spread of COVID-19?
The first purpose of the COVID-19 restrictions was to prevent us from catching it and becoming sick until we developed sufficient immunity to the new virus. Thankfully, the success of the vaccine programme (alongside, less thankfully, high population levels of infection) means most people have developed good immune protection and are now less likely to become very sick from the virus.
That said, right now COVID-19 is circulating at a very high level in most communities. Last week, one in every 20 people was infected with the virus. It’s still making people unwell. Thousands of people are in hospital right now due to COVID-19. Already this week, hundreds of people have died after testing positive for the virus in the past 28 days. We cannot brush aside the harm this virus causes just for political expediency.
The second purpose for restrictions was to avoid spreading the virus to other people and making them sick, particularly people who are more vulnerable. Again, the success of the vaccine programme has reduced that risk, but not removed it. By reducing restrictions, vulnerable people are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 than at previous points of the pandemic.
Protect the NHS
Third, let’s remember the early pandemic slogan: Protect the NHS. Our changes aimed to keep infection numbers low enough so the NHS had sufficient beds, equipment and staff to give people with COVID-19 and people with other health needs the best possible care.
Right now, high levels of COVID-19 are causing reduced capacity across the system. The need for enhanced infection control protocols means less capacity, as well as insufficient staff due both to sickness and to needing additional staff to look after people with COVID-19 and to deliver vaccinations.
Without the Plan B restrictions to help keep transmissions low, we can expect more people to catch COVID-19 in the short term, and reasonably high levels in the medium term
The result is an exhausted workforce and an increasing number of people needing care – whether it be elective procedures, mental health care, screening tests, monitoring of long-term conditions, or the multitude of other services the NHS offers.
Without the Plan B restrictions to help keep transmissions low, we can expect more people to catch COVID-19 in the short term, and reasonably high levels in the medium term. Not to mention an increase in other respiratory infections such as flu, which were helpfully prevented by the same restrictions.
It will be hard to directly compare data, thanks to a change in testing protocols. This change may result in fewer people testing or formally reporting their positive results. Simply put – the longer we have high numbers of people with COVID-19, the longer the disruption to health services will last.
Risks of removing restrictions
There are very definite risks, and some logical holes, to removing restrictions when the Omicron wave is essentially hovering around what we hope to be its peak, and at a stage when there is still considerable uncertainty about what its likely trajectory will be. That probably won’t be clear for a couple of weeks. Changes to restrictions that are made on early indications of a positive trajectory may even alter that trajectory. But even if we’re not unlucky with rising cases or from having created conditions conducive for potential new variants to emerge, the COVID-19 tail will be long and the NHS will continue to be affected by the virus as it tries to recover.
For most of us, mask-wearing, ventilation and hand washing have become habits. It’s hard to form a habit. Unless it causes you significant distress, why mess with this success?
This is such an obvious moment to stop and take a look at what we really want. Over the past two years, we have been empowered to reduce our personal and community chances of catching COVID-19 and getting sick. But why stop now? Stopping at the peak, rather than making sure numbers have dipped safely, is a bold choice. For most of us, mask-wearing, ventilation and hand washing have become habits. It’s hard to form a habit. Unless it causes you significant distress, why mess with this success?
Taking small actions to reduce your risk of getting ill or spreading the virus to someone else will be good for you and your loved ones, for the NHS and for the economy.
Dr Layla McCay is director of policy at the NHS Confederation. You can follow Layla on Twitter @LaylaMcCay