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It would be “sensible” for hospitals to reintroduce mandatory mask-wearing, the chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has said, as several trusts in England and Wales announced the move.
When NHS rules on wearing masks in England were dropped on 10 June, local health bodies were given the power to draft their own policies. Their guidance, however, is no longer legally enforceable.
Figures from NHS England show there were about 10,658 patients hospitalised with coronavirus on Monday. Infections have doubled in a fortnight across England – with about 1,000 patients being admitted with the virus each day.
Prof Andrew Pollard, who is also the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, which developed the AstraZeneca jab, said there were an “extraordinary” number of cases at the moment. “I certainly know more people now who have had Covid than at any time in the past,” he told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“Because there’s so much in the community, anything we can do in our hospitals to reduce the potential outbreaks make sense and so the mandatory mask wearing in hospitals is very sensible policy,” he added.
The number of deaths per day due to Covid across the world is lower than it has been in the last 18 months, but data from the Office for National Statistics shows 2.3 million people in the UK had coronavirus in the week ending 24 June, a 32% rise on the previous week.
Pollard said that while hospitalisations were down, “it doesn’t mean that Covid is not a bit of a problem because there are still individuals were who are being admitted to hospital where Covid is a co-factor in their admission, often alongside another health conditions.
“That huge spread that we have at the moment is going to increase the number of hospital admissions as a result,” he said.
Pollard’s comments come after a number of hospital trusts in England and Wales announced they were bringing back masks in an attempt to curb the recent surge in cases.
Trusts from Cambridgeshire, Hampshire, Nottinghamshire, Devon and Wales have all reinstated mask-wearing guidance for their hospitals.
The move comes amid fears that a new outbreak could reduce NHS staffing levels once more, causing knock-on effects for ambulance waiting times and the availability of specialists and operations.
Cambridge University hospitals NHS trust said its update was to “reduce further spread of Covid and keep patients and staff safe”.
Sherwood Forest hospitals NHS trust, in Nottinghamshire, said it was “vital we take decisive action to protect our most vulnerable patients”.
Similar reinstatement messages were put out by Torbay and South Devon NHS trust and North West Anglia NHS trust.
Experts believe the latest surge in cases is probably linked to the BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants of Omicron, which could push the total number of patients above April’s peak of 16,600.
Those variations are thought to be more infectious but as mild as the original Omicron strain.
The government has said it was monitoring the situation but did not yet plan to reintroduce restrictions.