NHS chiefs demand return of masks and free Covid tests to help drive cases down

NHS chiefs have called for the return of masks and free Covid tests to keep infections down.

It comes after all restrictions were scrapped earlier this year, and free testing stopped for the majority of England last month.

The number of patients in hospital with the bug has risen, leading for medics to insist some restrictions are brought back in.

Cases rose as people were able to mingle more freely, with the knock on effect now being seen in hospitals.

This was sparked by both the emergence of BA.2 – Omicron's subvariant which can spread even faster and get around vaccines – and people mixing more freely.

For the majority of people who catch the virus, especially the vaccinated, they will recover at home with a milder illness than with previous strains.

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On Monday Downing Street said there was "no change" to their plan to live with Covid in the long run.

Sajid Javid said the rise was to be expected after restrictions were lifted, and the Government isn't overly concerned due to Omicron causing a milder illness.

Official daily cases have fallen to 37,819 – which has coincided with the scrapping of free tests – although the wave had already started to drop.

But the British Medical Association has called for masks and free tests to be reinstated to stem the spread they are seeing in hospitals.

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Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA chair of council, said: "The reality is that more than four million people were infected with Covid-19 last week, 1.7 million people are suffering long Covid, 20,000 patients are in hospital with the virus and over 1,000 people are dying each week.

" Health services are struggling with almost 200,000 NHS staff absent due to Covid-19 in just one week, resulting in patients facing last minute hospital and GP appointment cancellations.

"The Government’s abandonment of free testing is thwarting our ability to control the spread of the virus, with even business leaders now urging the Government to rethink and reverse its decision to prevent further harm to both healthcare and the economy.

“Public messaging, encouraging people to get a jab, needs to continue, along with requiring simple protective measures, which have no impact on civil liberties – such as mask wearing on public transport and in confined spaces – and ventilation and air filtration in public and work settings."

Last week Mr Johnson refused to rule out imposing another lockdown if a vaccine-escaping mutation rears up.

Downing Street said there were no plans to change the guidance, but vowed to keep an eye on the situation, adding: "Obviously we continue to monitor any changes in the behaviour of the virus with the ONS, survey, tracking, hospital metrics, and we keep that under review."

Vaccines are the best line of defence, health bosses say, with a new study showing symptoms in the triple jabbed last on average half as long as a common cold.

Spring boosters are being dished out for certain groups in society, to keep their immunity high.

Free tests have now ended for the majority of people in England, with Brits being asked to be responsible with any illness that pops up.

Only the vulnerable, including those in high-risk jobs and with health conditions, will be eligible to pick up swabs without paying.

Everyone else in England now has to pay around £1 for a single swab or a tenner for a pack, to check if they have the virus.

Covid isolation rules have now changed, too. Confirmed cases are advised to stay at home for five days, when they are most infectious.

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Those needing to leave home should avoid close contact with vulnerable people, wear a face mask and avoid crowded spaces, such as rush hour trains.

And guidance states Brits with Covid symptoms, including a cough or fever, should remain indoors until they feel better.

Professor Steven Riley, Director General of Data, Analytics and Surveillance at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said: "While people will be looking forward to catching up with friends and family over the Easter period, it’s important to keep indoor spaces well ventilated, wash your hands regularly and wear a face-covering in crowded, enclosed spaces or when visiting people at highest risk of severe illness with Covid."

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