Covid: Hospitals reintroduce face masks and social distancing as cases rise

Medical staff wearing face masks in a critical care unit at King’s College Hospital, in London (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Wire)
Medical staff wearing face masks in a critical care unit at King’s College Hospital, in London (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Wire)

Hospitals in the UK have reintroduced face masks and social distancing amid a surge in Covid cases.

Several NHS Trusts have brought back restrictions to curb the spread of the virus in clinical settings as Covid hospitalisations passed the 10,000 mark for the first time since April on Monday.

Figures published by NHS England revealed that 10,658 patients were in hospital with the virus – a rise of 64 per cent in a month. However, it remains below the peak of 17,120 patients during the omicron wave last January.

The wave is being driven by the newer omicron variants, BA.4 and BA.5, which are more transmissible than other strains and capable of evading immunity conferred by vaccination or previous infection. There is “currently no evidence” to suggest the variants cause more severe illness, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

Face covering rules were scrapped in A&E and GP centres in June, but several trusts have now informed staff, patients and visitors that they will need to wear a mask in clinical settings.

Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust said the reintroduction of masks would help to “reduce further spread of Covid and keep patients and staff safe”.

Sherwood Forest Hospitals NHS Trust, in Nottinghamshire, said it would “take decisive action to protect our most vulnerable patients”.

Torbay and South Devon NHS Trust and North West Anglia NHS Trust issued similar statements confirming the return of masks on their sites.

Dr Lara Alloway, chief medical officer at Hampshire Hospitals NHS Trust, said: “We have taken the hard decision to require that surgical masks be worn by all staff, visitors and patients. In addition we strongly encourage social distancing of at least one metre in our hospitals.

“These measures have been brought in due to a significant increase in the number of Covid-positive patients in our hospitals, very high rates in the community and increasing levels of staff sickness.”

Figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) last week showed that a total of 2.3 million private households in the UK had Covid in the week to June 24, up by 32 per cent from a week earlier.

This is higher than the 1.3 million infections reached at the peak of the Alpha wave in January 2021, but still some way below the record 4.9 million cases at the height of the omicron BA.2 wave last March.

Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of NHS Providers, said hospital trust leaders “know they are in for a bumpy ride over the coming months as they tackle new and unpredictable variants of Covid alongside grappling with seasonal flu pressures which may hit us earlier than usual this year”.

Dame Jenny Harries, the UKHSA’s chief executive, warned on Sunday that BA.5 in particular was “really pushing and driving” the current wave.

She told the BBC that rising hospitalisations matter as occupancy affects “our ability to treat other illnesses as well”.

Other academics have said that, while the current wave will cause issues for hospitals, it is unlikely to necessitate a return to public health measures.

Azeem Majeed, professor of primary care and public health, Imperial College London, told The i: “The hospital numbers are going up back again towards levels we saw in January and April. But the proportion of patients on ventilators is quite low compared to, say, if you looked at January last year or March, April in 2021.

“Deaths are also very low compared to previous waves, it’s now around five or six per cent what we would have seen in January 2021.”

Professor Sir Peter Horby, professor of emerging infectious diseases at Oxford and director of the Pandemic Sciences Institute (PSI), denied that travel restrictions would be needed to contain the wave.

“I don’t think we’re in that situation at the moment, but obviously we have to keep reassessing the situation,” he told The Times.