Charities supporting the UK’s most vulnerable patients have pleaded with the public to keep wearing masks even after most Covid restrictions end in England this week.
Transplant patients and those with illnesses such as blood cancer and late-stage kidney disease “feel abandoned” by the government, charities said, after Boris Johnson announced that plan B measures will end on Wednesday.
People will no longer be required to wear masks on public transport and in shops, or use vaccine certificates, and the government has stopped asking people to work from home. By 24 March, the legal requirement for people with Covid to self-isolate will end, and the prime minister told MPs the date may be brought forward.
Although official guidance is to “suggest” that individuals wear masks in crowded and enclosed spaces with people they do not normally meet, Kidney Care UK and Blood Cancer UK said that ministers were not telling the public this.
Kidney Care UK’s policy director, Fiona Loud, said: “We want to say thank you to everyone who does recognise that the pandemic still isn’t over for thousands of kidney patients who are still vulnerable to Covid-19. Whether it’s employers considering more flexible working or people continuing to wear masks when they are no longer mandated: thank you.”
She said people with kidney disease were “understandably anxious that Covid-19 protections are being phased out”. Many had been shielding since March 2020, Loud said. “Quite simply, they feel abandoned, having already spent two years under Covid-19 stress.”
Helen Rowntree, director of research, services and engagement for Blood Cancer UK, said the needs of immunocompromised people “have not been mentioned at all” by ministers who are justifying the decision.
“The government should be talking about the fact that immunocompromised people are still vulnerable to Covid and explaining this to the public,” she said.
“At the moment, it is falling to charities like us to make the case to the public to continue mask-wearing and respecting people’s distance in public places, because there is no way of knowing if the person behind you in the queue is immunocompromised.
“The more people who wear masks and keep their distance in crowded places, the more that immunocompromised people will be able to live normal lives. We welcome the fact in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, people are still being required to wear masks in shops and other indoor public places.”
She praised the government’s decision to give many people with blood cancer access to treatments such as sotrovimab, a neutralising monoclonal antibody, and molnupiravir, an antiviral. “But it needs to make sure everyone eligible is able to access these treatments,” she added.
Transport for London data shows that on 26 November the number of bus journeys had risen above 5m a day for the first time since the pandemic began – about 80% of pre-pandemic levels. Omicron sent numbers falling over Christmas, but they had returned to 4.5m a day by 14 January.
However, research by University College London’s Covid Social Study group showed that after restrictions ended on “Freedom Day” last July, there was not an immediate effect on public compliance with government guidelines, and more than 80% of people say they comply most of the time, with about one in three complying all the time.
Professor Stephen Reicher, a behavioural scientist at the University of St Andrews, said that most people wore masks and took precautions out of concern for others. Although most people stick to the guidelines, he said the government’s actions “now send a message that ‘infections don’t matter’ and there is a broad literature showing that if people are told or believe there is no risk, they won’t act to mitigate that risk.
“The government talk endlessly about dropping restrictions as if by doing nothing they do us a favour,” he said. “But what they are doing is refusing to protect us, for example by improving ventilation in schools and elsewhere, and refusing to support us to self-isolate. The rhetoric of ‘lockdown’ and of ‘freedom’ is a rhetoric that covers a laissez-faire refusal to do anything – and we shouldn’t buy into it.”
Many headteachers have said they intend to continue to ask pupils to wear masks, because soaring levels of absences of staff and students had caused serious disruption to lessons. About 100,000 children are no longer on a school roll since the pandemic began. Some parents who are more at risk of serious illness from Covid have turned to home schooling to protect their health.
The Resolution Foundation reported in November that about 600,000 people had opted out of work because of fear of the virus and long Covid.
Rosie Weatherley, information content manager at Mind, the mental health charity, said although some people would feel hopeful about the end of restrictions, some would not.
“There are a lot of different emotions we could be feeling right now – anxiety around health, future restrictions, crowds and socialising, pressures to return to a busy working environment and changes to daily routines,” she said.
“It’s important to remember that there is no ‘normal’ response to changes to restrictions or the pandemic. Feelings can change daily and may be affected by lots of things that are outside of our control. It’s important that everyone – including the UK government and employers – recognises this. Some of us will need longer to adjust to the changes than others, and many of us will continue to need help and support for their mental health beyond lockdown lifting.”