A summer resurgence in Covid cases has prompted some GP surgeries to bring back face mask rules for patients — weeks after a new variant was spotted.
One practice in Leicester last week reinstated the guidance, urging people to mask-up, as a ‘precautionary measure’ to protect vulnerable patients.
Another in Essex cautioned that an ‘increasing number of patients and staff with Covid’ had prompted the move.
A spike in infections across the country has seen Covid hospitalisations in England hit a five-month high.
Health officials yesterday confirmed that a total of 42 cases of the super-mutated Pirola Covid variant have now been detected in the UK, up from 36 last week.
The East of England had the largest number of cases thanks to a massive care home outbreak of 28 cases in Norfolk in late August
One practice in Leicester last week reinstated the guidance, urging people to mask-up, as a ‘precautionary measure’ to protect vulnerable patients. Another in Essex cautioned that an ‘increasing number of patients and staff with Covid’ had prompted the move. A spike in infections across the country has seen Covid hospitalisations in England hit a five-month high
Mukta Modi, manager of Canon Street Medical Centre in Leicester told GP magazine Pulse: ‘We are preparing for the autumn vaccination programmes and this is a precautionary measure to protect staff and our vulnerable patients.
‘This has been discussed with our patient participation group who have been very supportive.’
Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland Local Medical Committee (LMC) chair Dr Grant Ingrams told MailOnline today: ‘Every practice is different with significant variation in the number of staff and patients who are at higher risk of catching Covid or having complications.
‘In addition, many practices are very short of space meaning that patients have to sit or stand close together in reception and waiting areas.’
He added: ‘Practices are private companies and have a legal duty to protect their staff and patients under Health and Safety Legislation and this includes against infection.
‘Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland LMC supports all practices to carry out a risk assessment and implement what protection they conclude is needed which may include wearing masks.’
While the true prevalence of the virus is unclear, data from the ZOE Covid study, which tracks self-reported infections, suggests there were 97,904 new daily cases of symptomatic infection on September 13 — almost double the 50,000 it reported at the start of August.
The study, which is based on data from millions of users of the ZOE app, estimates around 1.29million in the UK are currently infected, roughly one in 52 people.
The figure is the highest for five months, but it is still far lower than the estimated toll during earlier peaks, with it reporting that 3.8million people were infected in April 2022.
Patients had been required to wear face masks in GP surgeries up until June last year.
Updated NHS guidance at the time told practices that patients, apart from those with respiratory symptoms, are ‘not required’ to wear a face mask unless they wish to as a ‘personal preference’.
However, health and care staff were advised to continue to wear face masks as part of PPE when working with suspected or confirmed Covid patients, including those working with untriaged patients in primary care.
It comes as a caller, known only as Caroline, spoke to TalkTV on Wednesday claiming the unnamed GP surgery she works at in Essex had asked staff ‘to mask up again’.
In a message sent out to staff earlier in the week, it said: ‘Due to an increasing number of patients and staff with Covid, I’m afraid we need to ask you to mask up again at work from tomorrow.
‘Hopefully by wearing them again during the surge we can protect and look after each other and provide an example to patients.’
The message also confirmed the practice would review ‘mask wearing on a regular basis’, she claimed.
She told TalkTV: ‘I did message back and said I wouldn’t be wearing them and I would try and keep my distance if they were worried.
‘They also wanted us to start testing again if we feel unwell.’
Globally, more than 100 cases of Pirola have been detected including in Denmark, South Africa and the US
Virologists have warned it is too early to reliably pinpoint specific symptoms but they could include a runny nose, sore throat and fatigue
In recent weeks scientists have recommended a return of pandemic mitigation measures, including mask wearing, and increased ventilation because of the virus’ resurgence.
Some virologists have also urged Ministers to re-consider vaccine eligibility criteria, after the Government ditched plans last month to offer Covid vaccines to under 65s under the autumn jab rollout which began on Monday.
Despite some experts questioning whether they were ever necessary, studies have repeatedly shown mask wearing can reduce the transmission of the virus.
Last month, a report by the Royal Society also found ‘mask wearing and mask mandates were an effective approach to reduce infection’.
Researchers said studies consistently reported the measures were an effective approach to reduce infection, despite officials issuing mixed messages about their effectiveness at the beginning of the pandemic.
Other evidence from studies in healthcare settings also showed that higher-quality ‘respirator’ masks — such as N95 masks — were ‘more effective than surgical-type masks’, they added.
However researchers noted that as the pandemic progressed and the virus became more transmissible, non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) became less effective in controlling the spread of the virus.
It comes after UKHSA data yesterday showed that Covid hospitalisations are at their highest level since April.
Admissions among patients who tested positive for the virus stood at 4.6 per 100,000 people in the week to September 10, official figures show.
This is up from 3.7 per 100,000 the previous week and the highest since the week ending April 30.
This is still a fraction of the level reached last winter, when the rate stood at 11.8 per 100,000. It is also well below the figures seen during the first year of the pandemic.
The rate has been on a clear upwards trend for the past two months, however.
Rates remain highest among people aged 85 and over, at 51.1 per 100,000, and 75 to 84-year-olds, at 21.2 per 100,000.
Experts predict Covid cases will continue to rise as the UK heads into the autumn, and people mix more indoors.
Brits are also no longer testing en masse like they were earlier in the pandemic — with community testing ending in May 2022.
Therefore, confirmed cases are an underestimate of how many Britons are infected with Covid and how many of those have the new variant Pirola.
Yesterday UKHSA confirmed a total of 42 cases of the super-mutated strain, known scientifically as BA.2.86, have now been detected in the UK, up from 36 last week.
Of England’s 37 cases, spotted as of September 11, seven had been hospitalised, while two were detected among A&E patients. No deaths have been recorded among those infected.
Some 5 BA.2.86 cases have been reported by Public Health Scotland. No Pirola cases have been detected in Wales and Northern Ireland.
Pirola, like other recently emerged Covid variants, is a spin-off of the Omicron strain.
However, its host of mutations, 35 in total, sparked alarm with some experts fearing it would be different enough to effectively dodge the protection offered by Covid vaccines and infection from previous waves.
The UKHSA said it is currently analysing blood samples taken from NHS workers to test how effective the immune response generated by Covid jabs is against Pirola.
Experiments to determine how effective lateral flow tests are at spotting Pirola are also still underway.