Covid infection control measures in hospitals should be relaxed to help the NHS tackle a record backlog of patients waiting for treatment, the UK’s public health agency has advised.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has recommended three “pragmatic” changes that hospitals can make on social distancing, testing and cleaning practices to ease pressure on elective care services.
A reduction of physical distancing from two metres to one metre in non-emergency departments is among the recommended changes to current Covid Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) measures.
This would put hospitals in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidance, which currently advises one-metre physical distancing in healthcare facilities.
The agency also recommends removing the need for patients in low risk groups to self-isolate for three days and have a negative PCR test before selected procedures.
Enhanced cleaning should also be axed in low risk areas and providers can revert to standard practices, the agency said.
It noted that the WHO and other international authorities have stated there is limited evidence on transmission of Covid via surfaces, and that hand hygiene is likely to be more effective.
The agency said its advice comes as more of the population is vaccinated and protected against Covid, and hopes it will ease the pressure created by the pandemic on NHS capacity over the next few months.
A record 5.6 million patients are waiting for treatment due to delays caused by Covid, according to NHS England figures released earlier this month.
Dr Jenny Harries, UKHSA chief executive, said: “We have reviewed the existing Covid-19 IPC evidence based guidance and made a series of initial pragmatic recommendations on how local providers can start to safely remove some of the interventions that have been in place in elective care specifically for Covid-19.
“This is a first step to help the NHS treat more patients more quickly, while ensuring their safety and balancing their different needs for care.”
However, the UKHSA stressed that staff working in areas where Covid-19 control measures have been relaxed should be fully vaccinated, asymptomatic and not in contact with a positive case.
Staff will also be required to continue to comply with current guidance on asymptomatic testing.
Dr Layla McCay, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, said: “Healthcare leaders will welcome this review of the restrictions introduced during the early days of the pandemic.
“The recommended changes will help to increase efficiency and capacity within healthcare settings and give healthcare leaders and their teams the flexibility they need at a time when everyone is working so hard to increase the numbers of patients that can be safely diagnosed and treated.
“The new guidance means an opportunity to increase bed capacity on wards, an increase in patients being seen for a variety of procedures as well as the ability to transport patients more quickly and efficiently.
“However, we must remember that Covid-19 has not gone away.
NHS organisations know this well and will not take their eye off the ball when it comes to infection prevention and control, not least as we approach what we anticipate will be a very difficult winter with the NHS affected by rising infections from Covid-19 to flu.
“The impact of this could lead to some organisations and systems having to adapt their IPC measures again depending on local need.”
Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “As ever more people benefit from the protection of our phenomenal vaccination campaign, we can now safely begin to relieve some of the most stringent infection control where they are no longer necessary to benefit patients and ease the burden on hardworking NHS staff.
“I thank Dr Jenny Harries and the UKHSA for their recommendations, and look forward to their assessment of what further steps can be taken in other healthcare settings including in primary care.”
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