Boris Johnson Readies Extra Winter Funding for U.K. Virus Effort

Boris Johnson is set to announce more than 3 billion pounds ($3.8 billion) of extra funding to help prepare the U.K. National Health Service for the risk of a second peak in coronavirus cases.

The prime minister is also due on Friday to announce plans to ramp up antigen testing for the virus to 500,000 a day by the end of October to boost its test and trace program. It comes a day after Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance and Health Secretary Matt Hancock acknowledged the testing capacity needed for the winter was not yet in place.

With the U.K. suffering the worst death toll from the pandemic in Europe so far, Johnson is trying to avert a fresh squeeze on the health service over the winter, when epidemiologists expect cases of the virus to tick upwards again, at a time when flu and other seasonal illnesses put pressure on hospitals. As coronavirus cases continue to fall, the government in recent weeks has been steadily relaxing the conditions of the lockdown brought in on March 23 to contain the outbreak.

“The prime minister is clear that now is not the time for complacency, and we must make sure our NHS is battle ready for winter,” Johnson’s office said late on Thursday in an emailed statement. “Tomorrow, he will set out a broad package of measures to protect against both a possible second wave, and to ease winter pressures and keep the public safe.”

‘Different Waves’

The extra funding will allow the service to keep using private hospitals until the end of March, as well as the network of so-called Nightingale hospitals that were built at short order to cope with any overflow of Covid patients. The cash injection is designed to relieve winter pressures on accident and emergency departments and emergency care, while allowing routine treatments and procedures to continue. The funding is for England only, with more details due at a later date on funding for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Vallance on Thursday warned that cases are likely to increase again in the winter and “it’s quite probable that we will see this virus coming back in different waves over a number of years.”

Johnson’s office said the usual winter uptick in seasonal illnesses will “present challenges” for the U.K.’s test and trace program, which seeks to identify and test those who have come into contact with positive cases. That’s because of the “potential for a rise in other respiratory viruses with similar symptoms.”

Hancock will shortly set out expanded eligibility criteria for free flu vaccines, according to the statement from Johnson’s office. He’s already said this year will see the “biggest flu vaccine program in U.K. history” as the government seeks to ease pressures on the NHS.

‘Decisions Made’

The U.K. will see what lessons it can learn from other nations, and plans to carry out exercises to “stress test” its winter plans, according to the statement. Ministers also aim to ensure there are sufficient stocks of the protective masks, gloves, aprons and other kit needed by health and care workers.

The government has faced criticism from the press and opposition politicians over many aspects of its handling of the outbreak, including locking down the economy too late, a failure to get protective equipment to all medical and care staff who needed it, and allowing hospital patients to be discharged to care homes without being tested for the virus.

Vallance on Thursday told a House of Commons Science and Technology Committee hearing that “the outcome has not been good in the U.K.” In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, he said that keeping deaths below 20,000 would be a “good outcome:” The latest official death toll shows more than 45,000 have died, the most in Europe.

“There will be decisions made that will turn out not to have been the right decision at the time,” Vallance said.

U.K.’s Johnson Promises Inquiry to Learn Lessons of Pandemic

Johnson on Wednesday promised to “learn the lessons” of the pandemic with an independent inquiry, which could prove problematic for the government when ministers’ decisions are interrogated with the benefit of hindsight.

The government is currently trying to strike that balance between health risks and the need to boost the economy. Shops and pubs have reopened, while the official advice remains for people to work from home where possible — though that position was muddied last week when Johnson urged people to “go back to work if you can.”

But Vallance indicated that’s not what he’s advising.

“We’re still at a time where distancing measures are important,” Vallance said. “Of the distancing measures, working from home, for many companies, remains a perfectly good option because it’s easy to do, and for many companies it’s not detrimental to productivity.”

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