UK minister: Not time for coronavirus ‘plan B’

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A British Cabinet minister rejected pleas from health leaders to deploy the government’s coronavirus “plan B” in the face of mounting case numbers in the U.K.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said it would be “completely wrong” for the country to enter a fresh lockdown after the NHS Confederation urged ministers to avoid “stumbling into a winter crisis” by reintroducing measures like mandatory face coverings in crowded places “without delay.”

The U.K. has reported some 43,646 new cases of COVID-19 over the past seven days, a 16 percent weekly increase and a level not seen since mid-July. British hospitals have meanwhile seen a 10 percent rise in COVID-19 patients admitted in the past week, with the number of deaths also up 14.6 percent over the same time period.

England loosened the majority of its coronavirus restrictions — including social distancing and mandatory mask-wearing indoors — in July.

Ahead of what is expected to be a tough season for the country’s health service, the U.K. government last month unveiled its winter strategy for the pandemic, including a “Plan B” for England which will be activated only if data suggests the NHS faces “unsustainable pressure.”

The plan includes communicating “clearly and urgently” to the public that the level of risk has increased; the introduction of vaccine certificates in some settings; and legally mandating face coverings in high-risk situations. Ministers are also keeping in reserve the possibility of asking more people to work from home.

NHS Confederation Chief Executive Matthew Taylor said it was now “time for the government to enact Plan B of its strategy without delay because without preemptive action, we risk stumbling into a winter crisis. Also, health leaders need to understand what a ‘Plan C’ would entail if these measures are insufficient.”

And he warned ministers not to “wait for COVID infections to rocket and for NHS pressures to be sky high before the panic alarm is sounded.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his ministers are relatively relaxed about the surge in case numbers, a senior government insider told POLITICO London Playbook — so long as it does not lead to unmanageable hospitalizations and much higher deaths.

Case rises are “obviously a concern,” they said, but stressed the success of the COVID-19 vaccine in breaking the link with hospitalizations means “we are in a different place.” They said that rather than reach immediately for a return of non-pharmaceutical interventions, the government would continue to monitor hospitalizations and the NHS, and step up its vaccine booster campaign for elderly and vulnerable people.

Echoing that position on Times Radio today, Kwarteng rejected the call to ramp up COVID protections, and said that while Brits face “the risk of greater infections,” hospitalizations and death rates are “much much lower” than at the start of the year and the country is “learning to live with the virus.”

“Our experts, scientific advisors, ministers are looking at data on an hour by hour basis, and will make decisions on the back of that,” he said.

But Kwarteng argued the government is continuing to take “a balanced approach” between the “two extremes” of lockdown and total freedom. “That’s why we’ve managed to open up the economy, people are getting back to normal life,” he said. “And I absolutely think that it would be completely wrong for us to go back into a lockdown.”

Kwarteng said he would “look forward to having a Christmas party as usual.”

England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty struck a more cautionary tone Wednesday, tweeting that people should get vaccinated, take up offers of a booster jab, and continue to keep indoor spaces as well-ventilated as possible, wear masks and wash their hands.

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