Next week, the government will set out what the reopening will look like. I understand that the current plan is for a comprehensive reopening; though the formal decision on whether to proceed with the 19July unlocking will only be taken the week before.
As I sayin the magazine this week, the one-metre rule will be ditched, masks will no longer be compulsory and venues will be allowed to operate at full capacity again. The aim is that all legal restrictions will be removed apart from the requirement to isolate for people who test positive for Covid. Test and Trace will continue to ping those who have been in contact with the infected, but for most people tests should be sufficient to allow them to continue their daily business.
The challenge for the government will be to explain to people why it is safe to go ahead with the reopening when case numbers are still rising. Their best argument for this is that vaccines have, at the very least, severely weakened the link between cases and deaths.
But this challenge pales in comparison to what is coming in the autumn and winter. NHS Waiting lists are, for the first time ever, above five million and this number will only grow as more people come forward for treatment.
The question is whether the NHS can handle this backlog once Covid cases and flu flare up in the winter months. Normally, when worried about hospital capacity, you would cancel elective surgeries – which is what happened during Covid and what Jeremy Hunt did in the winter crisis of 2018. But doing that this winter would simply worsen the backlog problem.
At the moment, the hope in government is that vaccine booster shots for everyone over 50 and with an underlying condition, with flu jabs given at the same appointment, can keep hospital numbers manageable. While specialist FFP3 masks, which a Cambridge study found to be ‘most likely’ 100 per cent effective at preventing viral spread, can allow Covid infection controls in hospital – which are currently the biggest drag on NHS productivity – to be eased up.
An efficient booster programme and proper PPE procurement would maximise Sajid Javid’s chances of keeping both the NHS and society open this winter. This would be a far more significant achievement than proceeding with the 19 July reopening.
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