Data, rather than dates, must be the focus of the Government’s approach to the route out of lockdown, an organisation representing health trusts has said.
NHS Providers has written to Boris Johnson and set out four tests it said trust leaders believe must be passed before current restrictions can be relaxed.
The organisation’s chief executive Chris Hopson said case numbers are “still far too high” and the health service remains “at full stretch”, something he said trust leaders believe will continue for at least another six to eight weeks.
The four tests involve getting Covid-19 case numbers and the R number down to a “sufficiently low level” to avoid a surge in infections when restrictions are eased, and a requirement that NHS capacity has returned to levels where the service can treat all the patients it needs to.
Thirdly, the vaccination campaign needs to be sufficiently advanced to give adequate levels of protection and avoid unnecessary death and patient harm, NHS Providers said.
It said the Government must be clear “on what level of risk of mortality and harm it is prepared to accept as it aligns the relaxation of restrictions with the progress of the vaccination campaign”.
Finally, the organisation said there must be a “robust and effective strategy” in place to quickly identify and control future outbreaks, taking into account new variants.
Mr Johnson said he would aim to give target dates for restrictions being eased when he sets out his plan next Monday, but “won’t hesitate” to delay plans if infection rates make it necessary.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals, mental health, community and ambulance trusts in England, urged a cautious approach.
He said: “NHS trust leaders are clear, as they have been throughout the pandemic, that the approach should be to remain cautious. They want to focus on data, not just dates, with four evidence-based tests met before lifting restrictions.
“The evidence on Covid-19 cases, NHS capacity, progress with vaccinations and readiness to combat Covid-19 variants all show that it is much too early to start lifting restrictions.”
He said with only the top four priority groups vaccinated so far, there remains “significant risk of death and patient harm”, and warned there is “a lot more to do to ensure Test and Trace is fully ready to combat the new variants that are now our greatest threat”.
He said lessons must be learned from previous approaches to lifting restrictions.
He said: “We have had the debate about when and how quickly to lift restrictions several times before. Each time those arguing for a rapid relaxation were wrong and we had to reimpose restrictions, losing unnecessary lives and causing unnecessary long-term patient harm in the process.
“If this is to be the last national lockdown we have to learn the lessons from last year and take a cautious approach.”
The Prime Minister will analyse data this week on coronavirus case numbers, hospital admissions, deaths and the impact of the vaccine rollout as he prepares his plan to reduce restrictions.
He has struck a cautious tone to date, and said he wants the current national lockdown to be the last and for the unlocking to be “irreversible”.