This week the government outlined its plans to help the country and the NHS cope with the impact of coronavirus over the winter months.
As a former Health Minister, I know the intense pressure a bad winter can bring on NHS services, especially when exacerbated by a particularly virulent flu strain. So planning ahead is important.
We begin this winter in markedly better position than the last. It is, in fact, remarkable how far we have come. It was only in December last year when the first person the UK received their first dose of the covid vaccine. Whereas lockdowns were the primary means of tackling covid, now the vaccination effort is our first line of defence.
It is clear the link between cases, hospitalisations, and deaths has weakened significantly since the start of the pandemic, thanks to the remarkable vaccination effort. So the government has published two plans – Plan A and Plan B – depending on how the winter evolves.
Plan A has 5 elements: building defences through vaccinations, including boosters; identifying and isolating positive cases; supporting the NHS to manage pressure and address waiting lists; giving clear advice on how to stay safe; and pursuing an international approach by helping to vaccinate the world and managing border risks.
As part of this, the priority for the vaccination programme over the autumn and winter will be maximising uptake of the vaccine among those eligible but not yet vaccinated; offering booster doses to people who received their vaccination in Phase 1 of the vaccination programme (priority groups 1-9); and offering a first dose of vaccine to 12-15 year olds. The NHS is preparing to start offering booster doses next week.
But we know the covid situation can change rapidly. So Plan B has been prepared as a contingency, and includes three key aspects: clearly communicating the public that the risk level has changed, and with it the need to behave more cautiously; keeping the option to introduce mandatory vaccine-only covid status certification in certain settings; and legally mandating face coverings in certain settings.
The Government would also consider asking people once again to work from home if they can, for a limited period. Thanks to the success of the vaccination programme, it should be possible to handle a further resurgence of cases with less damaging measures than lockdowns.
There is no doubt winter will bring pressure, but barring new variants of concern, I am hopeful Plan A will see us through. But it is prudent and necessary to ensure we have further measures in reserve, if needed.