Face masks should be reintroduced on public transport and in crowded venues to protect the NHS from Covid-19, a study has found.
The research, undertaken as part of a plan to relieve pressures on the NHS this winter, has also urged the Government to implement mandatory mask wearing at most indoor public venues - and to extend coronavirus and flu vaccinations to all those over the age of 18.
According to the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, the NHS is heading towards a “perfect storm” and will this winter see both unprecedented demand and reduced capacity, which could combine to create the “worst winter crisis” in the history of the NHS.
This comes as NHS hospitals are experiencing the worst waiting times on record.
The Tony Blair Institute - set up by the Labour prime minister in 2016 - hopes that by introducing a set list of actions outlined in the study, the Government can avoid “disaster” - or at least mitigate the impacts.
The mandate on masks was lifted in the UK in January, though people were advised to continue wearing face coverings in enclosed or crowded spaces.
Mask wearing on public transport was first made mandatory in June 2020, but this was after the Government faced much criticism for its delay in recommending face coverings.
In addition to the reintroduction of mask mandates (on public transport and at indoor public venues, excluding hospitality) and the mass distribution of Covid-19 and flu vaccinations, the study has also highlighted ways to improve efficiency within the NHS - and actions needed to maximise capacity.
For the latter, the importance of staff retention has been stressed.
Mandating FFP2/3 face-mask wearing for NHS staff in health-care settings is another action suggested by the study.
Some of the factors which are reportedly contributing to the forthcoming crisis include:
- A new coronavirus wave: the study says that Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 are less likely to cause severe illness than previous variants, but are more infectious so will likely cause another wave this winter and drive up NHS demand.
- Cost of living crisis: with energy bills skyrocketing, many will be unable to afford heating this winter. The Institute fears that this will “exacerbate illnesses caused by cold weather”.
- Backlogs: the coronavirus pandemic caused huge backlogs which mean that to this day, seven million people across the UK are still waiting for elective care. “Rising winter pressures will likely lead to a reduction in elective care activity”, the study writes, which will “add to the existing backlogs”.
- Depleted workforce: vacancies in the NHS have now topped 100,000, and morale is seemingly at an all-time low - with a recent survey revealing that 50% of staff have considered leaving the profession in the last year. With pressures rising, the healthcare system cannot afford to lose more workers.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health told NationalWorld: “To prepare for what could be a challenging winter, we are working closely with the NHS at pace to ensure we are ready for the pressures ahead.
“By increasing capacity, boosting NHS 111 and 999 support, tackling delayed discharge and using new innovations such as virtual wards, we can help patients get the care they need, when they need it.”
The spokesperson added that Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay has launched a taskforce to drive up the recruitment of international staff into critical roles across the system, in order to continue working through the backlogs from Covid-19.
There is concern however over whether the appointment of the new Prime Minister - which will not be announced until 5 September - will leave enough time to make the desired preparations for winter pressures.
Tory leadership candidate Rishi Sunak has pledged to put the country on a “crisis footing” from the first day of taking office, but the Tony Blair Institute is concerned that neither him nor Liz Truss have appropriate plans for the winter.
The study writes: “Neither has set out detailed commitments to address the upcoming challenges the NHS faces, despite Health Secretary Steve Barclay calling for immediate action.”
Upon his appointment as Health Secretary, Mr Barclay said: “This government is investing more than ever before in our NHS and care services to beat the COVID-19 backlogs, recruit 50,000 more nurses, reform social care and ensure patients across the country can access the care they need.”