Medics appeal to public to prevent ‘overwhelming’ resurgence by following face mask and physical distancing guidelines.
Senior doctors are pleading with the public to help prevent a second wave of coronavirus that could “devastate” the NHS, amid concern at mixed government messages about face masks and returning to work.
Prof Carrie MacEwen, chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, said medics and healthcare workers felt “totally reliant on the public understanding that this has certainly not disappeared and could come back and cause even more suffering for the population.”
Dr Alison Pittard, head of the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine, also warned the NHS could be “overwhelmed” by a second wave coinciding with seasonal flu and the consequences of the backlog of treatment for serious illnesses including cancer.
“People might think Covid is over with, why do I have to wear a face mask,” she said. “But it isn’t over. We still have Covid patients in intensive care. If the public don’t physically distance and don’t wear face coverings we could very quickly get back to where we were earlier this year.”
Downing Street has said its scientific advice is that new infections are falling at a rate between 1% and 5% a day across the UK. But on Sunday, the Scottish government confirmed a rise in new cases for the fifth consecutive day with 23 people testing positive – the highest daily rate since 21 June. Meanwhile in Blackburn and Darwen, where health officials last week ordered new restrictions to reduce virus spread, Dominic Harrison, the director of public health, has said the national tracing system was only managing to reach half of those who had been in close contact with a coronavirus patient.
“Everyone has their role to play, but there needs to be clear, concise public messaging,” said Dr Chaand Nagpaul, council chair of the BMA, the trade union and professional body for doctors in the UK. “To introduce measures for shops, but not other situations where physical distancing is not possible – including some workplaces – is illogical and adds to confusion and the risk of the virus spreading.”
The medics’ warnings came as the government continued to signal easing of national restrictions with the reproduction rate standing at between 0.7 and 0.9, which means the virus is not growing exponentially.
On Sunday Boris Johnson said he did not believe a second national lockdown would be necessary in the latest of a series of bullish statements about the UK’s progress in handling a pandemic that has so far claimed more than 45,000 lives according to government figures.
Last week, senior doctors and scientists convened by the Academy of Medical Sciences said a second wave could kill 120,000 people in a worst-case scenario. Three days later, the prime minister floated the possibility of a return to normality by Christmas and announced that from 1 August the instruction to work from home where possible will be lifted, in apparent conflict with the chief scientific officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, who told MPs he could see “absolutely no reason to change”.
Asked to clarify the position by reporters, Johnson said: “We want to encourage people to think it is safe to come into work, provided employers have done the work … to make their premises Covid-secure.”
Over the weekend it emerged that the test-and-trace programme which is considered essential for the government strategy of using local lockdowns to quell outbreaks, has only been finding 37% of people with Covid-19 when it needs to be tracking down 50% of them to work effectively. The latest official figures for the week ending 8 July, also show that 22% of people with Covid-19 were not contacted and of those who were, the close contacts of 29% of them could not be reached.
Nevertheless, the Department of Health and Social Care defended the system.
“It has already helped test and isolate more than 180,000 cases – helping us control the spread of the virus, prevent a second wave and save lives,” a spokesperson said.
The government is set to allow local councils to access the names and data of people in their areas who have returned positive Covid-19 tests, which may improve performance.
MacEwen said doctors were now relying on the public to help avert a “perfect storm” hitting the health system this winter.
“If we get a second surge it could be bigger than the last one and economically that could cripple us and it could damage the NHS in the long-term, especially with the backlog [of elective care, including cancer care] and flu,” she said.
“Going into winter the situation is much bleaker [than handling a pandemic in spring] and against a background of economic disaster. The public has begun to think we are free of this, but we are not.”
She added: “The most important thing about being prepared for this winter is the population gets the flu vaccine if they need it and they behave in a way that reduces the risk of them catching Covid which is to socially distance, wash hands, wear masks and isolate if symptomatic or told to do so by test and trace.”
“It is down to the public again,” said Pittard. “They are vital in this.”