Thousands of patients still catching Covid on hospital wards as masks are dropped

Thousands of patients are still catching covid we hospital wards, analysis shows, as scientists have warned that Britain could be facing a new wave of coronavirus.

Just days after the NHS dropped a requirement to wear masks within hospitals and GP practices, data shows that 19 per cent of positive patients on wards are likely to have caught the virus in hospital.

Doctors told The Independent they had struggled to contain outbreaks on wards, with one warning that “hospitals enrich infection”.

The figures, compiled by the Covid-19 Actuaries Response Group, show that the proportion of people who are likely to have caught Covid in hospital grew by 29 per cent this week, though the data may underestimate the figures, given that routine testing has been dropped. Hospitals stopped the routine testing of patients on admission in May.

In the 28 days leading up to 5 June, more than 2,267 out of 13,416 patients who tested positive in hospitals were likely to have caught the virus there, according to the analysis, which was undertaken by pioneering Covid researcher Dr Tom Lawton.

One doctor, speaking about outbreaks within their trust, told The Independent: “Hospitals can’t help but spread infection because staff aren’t enabled to limit airborne transmission, and it only takes one on the ward, without mechanical ventilation, to lead to dozens of onward cases.

“I know of a recent outbreak which took out 14 staff; we weren’t allowed to test the whole ward, so no idea how many patients got infected.”

Britain’s overall number of cases has risen for the first time in two months, with 953,900 testing positive in the last week compared to 953,000 in the week prior.

Covid hospital admissions were up by 38 per cent on Friday compared to the week prior, while infections in the community began to rise in some parts of the country following two months of decline.

The rise in Covid admissions comes as the NHS remains under extreme pressure, with A&E departments warning that patients are facing waits of up to 13 hours.

Experts have questioned the decision to end the use of masks within hospitals. Dr Helen Salisbury, of the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Independent Sage), said it was “disappointing” and that there was no good reason for it.

She said: “Clearly there was a lot of hospital-acquired Covid, and a lot of not testing for it … there does seem to be a fairly central directive, that generally we don’t need masks any more, which is really , really disappointing. I’m quite distressed that our local trust isn’t actually saying that this is nonsense … I suspect they’re having pressure put on from above. I don’t know that for a fact, but there’s no good reason for stopping the mask-wearing.”

One doctor told The Independent: “Unfortunately, the scaling back of asymptomatic testing seems to be fairly widespread, and it’s only by people then pushing for off-protocol testing that you see results.”

Dr Kieran Sharrock, deputy chair of the GP committee at the British Medical Association, said: “It is clear Covid-19 has not gone away, and therefore it is good to see the latest guidance outlining how important it is, at the very least for people with respiratory symptoms, to continue to wear masks in healthcare settings.”

During the Independent Sage briefing, Professor Christina Pagel said: “We will have a new wave of infections this month. Now hopefully it won’t be as high as the previous two waves, and might be lower. But we can’t count on that, and either way we are going to see more people becoming infected.”

Professor Pagel said that currently there were four variants of Omicronwhich were “all increasing rapidly”, whereas the previous wave in March was driven by two variants.

However, Professor John Edmunds, from the government’s Sage group, said: “It’s very difficult to say where it might, and how it might, go different … [infections] could just bump along.”

In a poll run by Clinically Vulnerable Families UK, which represents thousands of patients across the country, more than 700 reported that they were concerned about the dropping of masks in clinical settings, while 200 said that they would reconsider having treatment in NHS facilities.

A spokesperson for the group said: “Healthcare settings are predominantly populated by the elderly and those who are clinically vulnerable, and they remain the most at risk from Covid infections. One-way masking is known to be far less protective, and so the vulnerable must rely on other people to wear masks until other measures, such as Hepa filters to clean the air, are widespread.”

On Thursday, Dr Jamie Lopez Bernal, a consultant epidemiologist working for the immunization and countermeasures division of the UK Health Security Agency, said: Covid-19 case rates continue to decline, but it remains important to get vaccinated to reduce the risk of serious illness . If you’ve yet to take up the offer of a vaccine, or have missed your latest jab, please come forward now.

“Recent data has shown a small rise in positivity rates and in hospitalizations with Covid-19. These small increases should be interpreted with caution, as data may be subject to delays due to the jubilee bank holiday.”

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