The NHS is considering plans to discharge patients into hotels as hospitals become swamped with COVID patients, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has confirmed – as he said it was “impossible to know” how long lockdown restrictions might last.
Mr Hancock told Sky News that the government would “look at all options” to relieve pressures on the NHS, with more than 35,000 coronavirus patients currently in hospitals across the UK.
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“There are huge pressures on the NHS and, as you’d expect, we’re looking to all different ways that we can relieve those pressures,” he said.
The health secretary said the NHS Nightingale Hospital in London had begun taking patients as “back-up”, but that ministers had alternative plans “in case there’s more that’s needed”.
Asked about reports thousands of NHS patients could be discharged early from hospitals to hotels or their own homes to free up beds, Mr Hancock said: “We’d only ever do that if it was clinically the right thing for somebody.
“But in some cases, people need step-down care, they don’t actually need to be in a hospital bed.
“We work very closely with the social care sector to make sure that capacity is available. But we look at all options.
“So this isn’t a concrete proposal by any means, but it’s something we look at, because we look at all contingencies.”
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Some Conservative MPs are putting pressure on ministers to begin easing England’s third national lockdown from 8 March.
But the health secretary said it was “impossible to know” how long the restrictions might have to be in place for.
“We will keep the restrictions in place not a moment longer than they are necessary, but we will keep them in place as long as they’re necessary,” Mr Hancock said.
The government is aiming to offer 15 million of the most vulnerable people a first dose of a COVID vaccine by 15 February, with the health secretary saying the vaccination programme is “on track” to meet that deadline.
More than 2.8 million coronavirus jabs have so far been given to more than 2.4 million people across the UK.
Asda announced on Wednesday it will begin providing vaccinations from an in-store pharmacy in Birmingham in the last week of January.
Mr Hancock said: “The measures that we’ve got in place, that we hope to be able to lift, that we should be able to lift when we’ve been able to protect through vaccination of those who are vulnerable.”
But he added that “right now, the vaccine is not yet in a position to do that”.
Mark Harper, the chair of the COVID Recovery Group of Conservative backbenchers, has suggested that from 8 March – giving three weeks for those 15 million of the most vulnerable to develop significant immunity to coronavirus – the government should begin to lift “severe” restrictions.
But, asked about that timescale being proposed by Tory MPs, Mr Hancock replied: “Well, great. But I’m the health secretary.”
Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the government’s advisory Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, told Sky News that COVID measures will be needed “for a while yet”.
“We must be very clear that vaccination will prevent disease in individuals but it may not prevent those individuals from transmission to others,” he said.
“So, even though you’ve been vaccinated, you might not be completely protected yourself, you may be in risk of transmitting to others, so I think we will have to use extra precautions in terms of social distancing, wearing masks, for a while yet.”
He added: “There is light at the end of the tunnel and certainly by the beginning of March we should see a sharp drop-off in hospitalisations and deaths.”
England’s deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, dismissed suggestions the “two-metre rule” could be increased to three metres.
He told LBC Radio: “The question you are asking is whether the new variant is really going to be capable of moving a greater distance, and that doesn’t kind of fit with my biological understanding, because the distance relates to the force of the cough or the sneeze or the respiratory droplet that flies out of you.
“Unless we were saying that the variant makes you cough in a different way or cough more violently, I can’t see how you can gain that extra distance, like in the long jump as it were.”