Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said today lockdown cannot be lifted before summer because coronavirus infections need to plunge tenfold
Lifting lockdown before the end of May is too dangerous and Covid cases need to plunge ten-fold before it is safe for society to reopen, NHS bosses have warned in a gloomy letter to the Prime Minister today.
NHS Providers — which represents hospital trusts in England — said it would be ‘very premature’ to significantly ease the draconian curbs now, claiming cases were ‘still some way away’ from being low enough for hospitals to function properly.
Latest official figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest about 695,000 people in England currently have Covid on any given day.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents trusts across England, said that ‘number needs to come down to around 50,000’. Other SAGE experts have called for ministers to wait until it drops to 10,000.
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme: ‘When you are hearing people say “all restrictions off by the end of May”, we think that feels very premature. We can only see the beginnings of lockdown easing on that timescale.’
With the second wave firmly in retreat and the vaccination drive a roaring success, Boris Johnson is under pressure from Tory backbenchers for a swift relaxation of measures in the coming weeks, when vulnerable Brits will all have had their first jab.
But Mr Hopson highlighted that in Israel, hospital admissions have started to rise in younger age groups now that the old and vulnerable have been jabbed. In Israel, people are getting their second vaccine dose three weeks apart compared to three months in the UK.
He warned that opening up Britain without giving everyone over 50 both doses would risk spikes in hospitalisations that could push the NHS to the brink again.
The PM is due to lay out his roadmap out of lockdown on Monday. It is thought that restrictions on pubs, restaurants and hotels could be eased very gradually at Easter.
But with No10 keen to take a cautious approach to lifting the curbs this time around, it could take until July to return to ‘broadly normal’, sources say.
NHS providers is calling for the significant reduction in cases and hospital patients, all over-50s to get both Covid vaccine doses and a levelling up the Test and Trace scheme to be able carry out rapid genomic sequencing to quickly spot dangerous new variants.
Mr Hopson told the Today programme: ‘We had 500 Covid patients in hospitals in September and yet, 15 weeks later, we had 34,000 patients, and we were perilously close to overwhelmed.
‘So, what that says to you is that you just need to be really careful before you start relaxing the restrictions prematurely.’
He said he did not want to speculate what level case numbers should reduce to before restrictions were lifted but he cited ONS data which estimates that 695,400 people in England have Covid-19, adding: ‘I think there is a pretty clear view is that number needs to come down to around 50,000.’
No10’s blueprint for escaping lockdown
The roadmap for easing lockdown will be unveiled on Monday, setting out the order in which rules will be lifted and the target dates.
Here’s what we know so far:
March 8 – Schools open;
End of March/start of April – non-essential shops reopen;
Early April – Sports such as golf and tennis resume; holiday lets and larger hotels reopen;
Early May – Pubs, bars and restaurants welcome customers, with a maximum of two households allowed to sit together indoors and the rule of six applying outside.
Early June – Rules for pubs and restaurants relaxed with the rule of six extended indoors;
July – Hospitality and domestic holiday industries can operate as normal – but still with social distancing.
It comes after a report last night warned NHS waiting lists could hit a record 10million by April – with one in six people in England needing treatment.
Researchers claim that the pandemic turned the NHS into the ‘National Covid Service’, with six million fewer referrals in 2020 than 2019.
It could see the waiting list rise from 4.52million as of the end of December to ten million by April, modelling by the Reform think tank and data analytics firm Edge Health suggest.
The number waiting on the list for more than a year is also expected to be 12,000 per cent higher by April than last March.
Health charities and the Royal College of Surgeons last night warned that patients face the ‘grim reality’ of long waits for ‘years to come’.
But Mr Hopson said this morning that ‘trumpeting’ worst-case scenarios about the NHS waiting list ‘isn’t particularly helpful’.
Asked about the report, he added: ‘There is a significant issue here but we’ve got to be really careful not to exaggerate things.
‘In June 2020 another organisation, using virtually exactly the same methodology, said that the NHS waiting list would hit exactly this figure of 10 million by last December – that didn’t happen.
‘Actually the waiting list is 4.4 million – that’s a very big waiting list but it’s nowhere near 10 million.
‘We just need to be careful about over-exaggerating what is a very significant problem and will take investment and time to overcome.
‘In my personal view, trumpeting worst-case scenarios to get some newspaper headlines at the NHS’ expense isn’t particularly helpful.’
Meanwhile, the lockdown-easing blueprint being discussed by ministers and industry leaders would allow restrictions to be eased only at four-weekly intervals.
The gradual approach means traders will have to wait until at least Easter – early April – for a limited restart.
This is likely to include the reopening of holiday lets and larger hotels, with dining rooms still closed. Sports such as golf and tennis could resume.
Pubs, bars and restaurants will have to wait until early May under the plans, with a maximum of two households allowed to sit together indoors and the rule of six applying outside.
The next stage, in early June, would see the rules for pubs and restaurants relaxed with the rule of six extended indoors.
The hospitality and domestic holiday industries could be allowed to return to normal in July – with social distancing.
Mr Johnson will unveil the plan on Monday. But the blueprint is the most detailed outline of the Government’s thinking so far.
It appears to confirm that – contrary to the demands of some Tory MPs – the Prime Minister is determined to be cautious, with plenty of ‘headroom’ to adjust to any resurgence of the virus.
The fact that the rule of six and social distancing are expected to remain in force until well into the summer indicates the extent of the worries over new mutations.
Office staff are expected to be told to keep working from home when the Prime Minister unveils his roadmap.
He is not expected to set a firm date for when employees should return to their desks, meaning that the ‘work from home if you can’ message will continue for the foreseeable future.