Coronavirus Plan B: The three things that could trigger winter COVID restrictions

·5 min read
The UK government has insisted it does not intend to trigger its 'Plan B' of COVID restrictions yet in the winter.
The UK government has insisted it does not intend to trigger its 'Plan B' of COVID restrictions yet in the winter.

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has said it "doesn't feel it's time for Plan B just yet" amid soaring COVID-19 case numbers and rising deaths, and calls from the NHS to bring in measures to avoid a "winter crisis". 

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Kwarteng said the government is monitoring data, describing current freedoms as "very hard won". 

“The infection rate was always likely to go up as we opened up the economy, because as people get back to normal life, the infection rate was likely to go up," he said. 

"But what was critically important was the hospitalisation rate and the death rate as well,” he said.

Watch: Minister rules out winter lockdown as Covid cases rise

Kwarteng added that, while things could change, "at the moment, we think that the course we're plotting is the right one". 

Downing Street have also said that there is "absolutely no plan to introduce Plan B" right now, but they were keeping "a very close eye" on the situation. 

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The comments come after NHS Confederation chief executive, Matthew Taylor, called on the government to trigger plan B – warning of "the most challenging winter on record".

“It is time for the government to enact Plan B of its strategy without delay because without pre-emptive action, we risk stumbling into a winter crisis," he said.

“Also, health leaders need to understand what a ‘Plan C’ would entail if these measures are insufficient.

“The government should not wait for COVID infections to rocket and for NHS pressures to be sky high before the panic alarm is sounded.”

Daily confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK. (PA)
Daily confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the UK. (PA)

COVID related deaths hit their highest levels since March on Tuesday at 223, as cases creep closer to 50,000 per day, and the i paper has reported that the government's pandemic advisory board, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), is meeting just once a month. 

In its autumn and winter plan for dealing with coronavirus in the coming months released in September 2021, the government outlined a “Plan B” to be used if the NHS finds itself under unsustainable pressure.

This could see the return of small-scale restrictions in England. These include COVID status certificates at venues with large attendances, legally mandating face masks in certain settings and asking people to work from home.

While the specifics on the circumstances that would trigger Plan B in the document released by the government are sparse, Prof Chris Whitty - the UK’s most prominent COVID scientist - provided details at a Downing Street press conference in September 2021. 

“In terms of what might trigger change,” he said, “[these] are the things which I think are the most likely.”

1. “The absolute numbers going to hospital”

For context, at the peak of the second wave on 12 January, 4,583 were hospitalised.

On 4 January, the date Boris Johnson plunged England into a third lockdown, 3,936 people were admitted.

On 15 October, the latest date for which government figures are available, 921 people were admitted to hospital with COVID. 

2. “The rate of change”

Prof Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said a sudden spike in hospital admissions would force ministers to make a decision.

“A gradual drift up is one thing, [but] if you suddenly saw a very rapid increase then you have to consider taking earlier action.”

3. “The overall state of the NHS”

“Going into winter there tend to be greater pressures,” Prof Whitty said.

Elsewhere in the press conference, he said people do not need a medical degree to know autumn and winter are times when other respiratory viruses, such as flu, are “hugely advantaged”.

Meanwhile, Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK's chief scientific adviser, said the UK is currently at a “pivot point” in the pandemic and if the situation worsens quickly, ministers must “go early”.

Watch: Chris Whitty slams anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists

In an apparent message to Boris Johnson, who was standing next to him, Sir Patrick added: "You can’t wait until it’s late because you’ve got to do more.”

Since the start of the pandemic. Johnson has repeatedly been accused of imposing restrictions too late.

For example, Prof Neil Ferguson, one of the UK's leading epidemiologists, said it was "unarguable" that 30,000 lives could have been saved if the prime minister had imposed the first lockdown earlier. It was Prof Ferguson's modelling that eventually convinced Johnson to announce the shutdown on 23 March last year.

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Commenting on the Plan B measures, Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said: "With such very high numbers of community infections, things could get out of hand very quickly and it may prove impossible to close the stable door before the horse bolts."

The initial Plan A measures announced by the government include a booster vaccination campaign for over-50s, possible compulsory COVID and flu jabs for NHS and social care workers, people being encouraged to meet outdoors and businesses being urged to check customers' COVID status.

The government has insisted Plan B "would only be enacted if the data suggests further measures are necessary to protect the NHS".

Watch: Coronavirus in numbers – UK death toll rises by 185

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