NHS call for return to mask-wearing rejected by Downing Street

The NHS Confederation urged the Government to reconsider its “living with Covid” plan


Downing Street has rejected a call by NHS leaders to reintroduce greater mask-wearing and a push to encourage mixing outdoors.

The NHS Confederation said that ministers risk “abandoning” the NHS if they do not take action.

The membership body, which represents healthcare organisations, warned that very high rates of Covid-19 infections are having a “major impact” on the health service.

It urged ministers to reinvigorate its public information campaign on Covid-19, including a renewed focus on mask-wearing and encouraging to meet up outdoors and in well-ventilated places whenever possible.

Sajid Javid, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak
Sajid Javid, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak
People testing positive for Covid-19 in private households in the UK
People testing positive for Covid-19 in private households in the UK

Downing Street rejected the proposals but said that it was “alive to the pressures” that the NHS is facing.

A No 10 spokeswoman said: “There is no change to our guidance and our living with Covid plan still stands.

“Thanks to a combination of vaccination and treatment and our better understanding of the virus we are now able to manage it as we do with other respiratory infections, so that remains the case with our approach.

“But obviously we continue to monitor any changes in the behaviour of the virus.”

Asked about the view that NHS leaders felt abandoned by the Government, the spokeswoman said: “We are incredibly grateful to NHS staff who worked flat out throughout the pandemic and continue to do so in the face of Covid backlogs.”

The NHS “is clearly under pressure” but the health and care levy will provide additional funding alongside £10 billion “to recover services and relieve Covid pressures”.

The NHS Confederation has called for “mitigating actions” to help the NHS which is grappling with 20,000 Covid patients, high rates of staff absences, full hospitals and severe demands on emergency care.

Matthew Taylor, the Confederation's chief executive, said: “The brutal reality for staff and patients is that this Easter in the NHS is as bad as any winter.

“But instead of the understanding and support NHS staff received during 2020 and 2021, we have a Government that seems to want to wash its hands of responsibility for what is occurring in plain sight in local services up and down the country.

“No 10 has seemingly abandoned any interest in Covid whatsoever.

“NHS leaders and their teams feel abandoned by the Government and they deserve better.”

Mr Taylor told BBC Breakfast: “In our view, we do not have a ‘living with Covid’ plan, we have a ‘living without restrictions’ ideology, which is different.

"We need to put in place the measures that are necessary to try to alleviate the pressures on our health service while this virus continues to attack.”

The organisation said that in the last week alone 20 emergency departments in England have been forced to turn patients away as they issued “diverts” due to being too full.

Prevalence of Covid-19 in the UK
Prevalence of Covid-19 in the UK

The NHS Confederation called into question whether plans to tackle the record backlog of care are realistic.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “The success of our vaccination and antivirals programmes alongside increased public understanding on managing risk means we can start living with Covid – with public health guidance and free testing focused on groups who are most at risk from the virus.

“We are incredibly grateful to NHS staff and we have set out our plan to tackle the Covid backlog and deliver long term recovery and reform, backed by our record multibillion-pound investment over the next three years.

“We are on track to deliver 50,000 more nurses by 2024, there are over 4,300 more doctors compared to last year, and we are investing hundreds of millions in growing the workforce.”