Ministers must introduce compulsory face masks on public transport again this winter to reduce the spread of Covid or risk the already stretched NHS becoming overwhelmed, Tony Blair’s think tank has warned.
The former prime minister’s Institute for Global Change said a “perfect storm” of unprecedented demand and reduced capacity will see hospital wards fill up to create “the worst crisis in the NHS’s history”.
Covid cases have been falling across the UK in recent weeks although there are fears infections could rise again in the coming months as people spend more time indoors when it gets colder.
Outgoing prime minister Boris Johnson ended all Covid-related legal restrictions – including the mask mandate – earlier this year as part of England’s plan to “live” with the virus.
Commuters on Transport for London services are still being urged to wear them, particularly on crowded Underground Tube lines, although there is no longer any requirement to do so.
Studies have shown that while masks do not fully protect against the virus they can help to reduce its spread.
“The strategic implementation of mask mandates should be considered for this autumn and winter,” the report said.
“This winter will bring a perfect storm, resulting in unprecedented demand and reduced capacity, which will combine to create the worst winter crisis in the NHS’s history,”
The report urged the government to do “whatever it takes” to support the NHS through the autumn and winter months to “avert an unmitigated disaster”.
“Failure to do so will result in the breakdown of the NHS as we know it, with a collapse in vital services and a rise in adverse outcomes for patients,” the report adds.
Mr Blair made repeated interventions during the pandemic and his think tank was credited with devising policy proposals that were sometimes later adopted by the government.
The intervention comes after Dr Susan Hopkins, head of the UK health security agency, warned that flu season – which usually starts at the end of November – could begin as early as September.
It is feared that the early flu season – coupled with rising levels of Covid – could place further pressure on the NHS. The UK has not had a flu season since before the pandemic and immunity levels are low as a result, experts say.
“We are planning for an influenza wave,” Ms Hopkins told a webinar hosted by the Royal Society of Medicine in June.
“While we normally don’t see influenza really kick off until the end of November to December, that might happen as early as late September-October – that’s what we’re planning for.”