Plans to relax Covid restrictions at Christmas must be reversed or many lives risk being lost, according to a rare joint editorial from two of the UK’s most eminent medical journals.
The government can no longer claim to be protecting the NHS if it goes ahead with “rash” plans to allow households to mix indoors over Christmas, the British Medical Journal and Health Service Journal have said.
“We believe the government is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives,” it says.
It warns that if current trends continue, there will be 19,000 Covid patients in English hospitals by New Year’s Eve – the same as at the peak of the first wave on 12 April. Those numbers do not factor in the impact of Christmas mixing between households and the freedom to travel to see family.
The editorial says the extra caseload of Covid-19 patients is likely to be 40 times higher than at the beginning of the second wave.
“The new year is likely to see NHS trusts facing a stark choice: be overwhelmed or stop most elective and non-urgent work,” the editorial warned. “Rather than lifting restrictions over Christmas as currently planned, the UK should follow the more cautious examples of Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.”
The move from the journals, which cover both medics and policy and management across the health service, will increase pressure on the government to rethink of plans to allow three households to mix from 23 to 27 December.
The joint editorial, only the second joint endeavour in the titles’ 100-year histories, said it was time to rethink the Christmas restrictions in light of the current rate of infections.
“When government devised the current plans to allow household mixing over Christmas it had assumed the Covid-19 demand on the NHS would be decreasing. But it is not, it is rising, and the emergence of a new strain of the virus has introduced further potential jeopardy,” the editorial says.
“The government was too slow to introduce restrictions in the spring and again in the autumn. It should now reverse its rash decision to allow household mixing and instead extend the tiers over the five-day Christmas period in order to bring numbers down in the advance of a likely third wave. It should also review and strengthen the tier structure, which has failed to suppress rates of infection and hospitalisation.”
NHS trusts in the most pressured regional health systems are already having to cancel almost all elective and non-urgent care because of the resurgent virus, the editorial says. “Even if NHS England succeeds in vaccinating all those ‘at risk’ by Easter, this will not be in time to prevent hospitalisation and death for many during the next few months,” it adds.
The BMJ and HSJ also criticise NHS test and trace and the government’s plan for mass testing with lateral flow tests. The tracing service “which has almost nothing to do with the NHS, continues to squander money on failure. So too does the mass testing of asymptomatic people using lateral flow tests that are not fit for purpose”, the editorial says.