UK tinkers with Covid-19 measures as Omicron cases spike

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The UK is trying various strategies to limit the impact of record high Covid-19 cases
The UK is trying various strategies to limit the impact of record high Covid-19 cases
Gusztav Hegyi
  • The UK government has asked private businesses to test the plans against a worst-case scenario of as much as 25% in workforce absences.
  • Covid-related absences among hospital staff jumped nearly two-thirds between 26 and 31 December.
  • Regionally, the situation is even worse, with parts of one London hospital having to close because half the nursing staff were off sick.

The UK is trying various strategies to limit the impact of record high Covid-19 cases on health care and other sectors, while attempting to stay true to a vow to avoid new lockdowns. 

Among the latest moves, Boris Johnson’s government is developing contingency plans to help companies and supply chains avoid disruptions caused by rising staff absences, the Financial Times reported. 

It’s asked private businesses to test the plans against a worst-case scenario of as much as 25% in workforce absences, according to the newspaper. 

Covid-related absences among hospital staff jumped nearly two-thirds between 26 and 31 December, the Times reported on Sunday, citing National Health Service figures. 

Regionally, the situation is even worse, with parts of one London hospital having to close because half the nursing staff were off sick, the paper reported. Health service staff have also faced difficulty accessing Covid-19 tests.

Meanwhile, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told the Sunday Telegraph that secondary school students in England will be instructed to once again wear masks in classrooms as the omicron variant spreads. 

That will bring the country in line with current measures in Scotland and Wales. The school masking plan for England is currently expected to end on 26 January, when virus measures known as Plan B are set to expire. 

There were more than 162,000 positive tests for Covid-19 in England on Saturday, about four times the daily level from early December, extending a string of record highs tied to the highly contagious omicron variant. 

Last Resort

London was the omicron strain’s first epicenter in the UK, and while cases there appear to have plateaued, they’re rising sharply in several other areas, including Northern Ireland, northwest England, and much of Scotland.  

The UK Health Security Agency said in a blog post that easing the rules on self-isolation and allowing people back to work after five days instead of the current seven would worsen the situation. Its modeling showed as many as one-third of people would still be infectious six days after a positive test.

UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid on Saturday wrote in the Daily Mail that new “curbs on our freedom must be an absolutely last resort,” citing the “enormous health, social and economic costs of lockdowns.” 

Hospital admissions in the UK, while rising, are far below last winter’s peak -- a trend attributed to the nation’s high vaccination rate and aggressive booster program. 

Chris Hopson, chief executive officer of NHS Providers, said Saturday in a lengthy Twitter post that “there are currently many fewer, seriously ill, older people needing critical care” compared with a year ago. Deaths from Covid have been holding steady at a fraction of the early-2021 peak. 

In a December study, the HSA estimated that omicron, while more contagious than earlier strains, appears to be less severe. An individual with omicron is as much as 70% less likely to be admitted to hospital, the agency said. 

Still, the NHS is “under different, arguably more pressure” compared with a year ago because of a massive backlog of non-Covid patients, Hopson said.

NHS Providers represents workers in the health service’s hospitals, ambulance and mental health services.

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