Chairman of the British Medical Association Dr Tom Black has welcomed health minister Robin Swann’s decision to lift all remaining restrictions on public life, although he cautions that the guidelines around social distancing, mask wearing and hand washing should continue to be adhered to.
“With Omicron now being the most transmissible variant in the community, and being less dangerous than previous variants, the measures decided upon by the Chief Medical Officer Sir Michael McBride and the Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Ian Young, whom the health minister Robin Swann collaborates with on policy, do seem to be proportionate and the BMA defers to their judgement on this.
“But our concerns and advice would be mostly around the care of vulnerable patients and those who are immunocompromised or immunosuppressed, so there’s no doubt that the population as a whole has made a lot of sacrifices over the past two years, and that now is the time to open things up again as Omicron is milder and is not putting the same pressure on intensive care beds.
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“We hope that transmission of Covid will start decreasing now and that we now have the opportunity to return to normal life.
“While the health minister has removed the legal regulations he is still encouraging people to abide by the necessary regulations and advice, so the guidance is still there to get tested if you are symptomatic, and to isolate if you are positive for five to seven days until you have two negative lateral flow tests.
“The guidance is always there to continue wearing masks indoors, and we in the British Medical Association in Northern Ireland would insist that masks be worn in all health care facilities because, of course, these are places where you would find a high incidence of immuno-compromised people.
“We should continue, for example, wearing masks in GP practices and in hospitals, otherwise vulnerable people cannot be invited in to be seen.
“Maintaining social distancing and washing your hands will remain important.
“I don’t think we need legally enforced restrictions anymore, but I certainly do think that we should follow the guidance when it comes to reducing the risk of transmission.
“The current rate of Omicron Covid infection is about one in 13 in Northern Ireland with about eight percent of children.
“Those rates are still high but we are hoping to see them come down in the coming weeks as they already have done in England, Scotland and Wales.
“Omicron, because it is so transmissible, has a much sharper peak than previous variants like Alpha or Delta, in other words, it comes and goes faster.
“The other good news we have is that if you are double jabbed and have received the booster, you are very well protected against the likelihood of being hospitalised due to an Omicron infection.
“But there will always be people who have not been vaccinated or who are immunocompromised, who are obviously more vulnerable, and the best protection that we can offer them is a double dose of the Covid vaccine and the booster additionally.”
Members of the Independent SAGE group, a cohort of scientific and medical experts who have been generally critical of Boris Johnson’s Covid response, have talked about the importance of air filtration systems and air ventilation in offices, classrooms and other places where people gather in close proximity, such as bars, shops and restaurants, as the virus is air-borne and fresh air in enclosed spaces is the best way to reduce transmissibility, although it remains to be seen if Government will be prepared to invest in these measures which are already commonly found in continental Europe because of its warmer climates which necessitate good air conditioning.
Dr Black added: “Physical environments where you are seeing patients would certainly benefit from air filtration systems but that can be difficult for example in hospitals that are old and cramped, and during winter it can be hard to keep windows and doors open, although we have done our best with that.
“But air filtration and air ventilation systems would be desirable adaptations to indoor environments.”
Dr Black concluded in summing up the BMA’s position: “We urge people to remain cautious and vigilant because we are particularly worried about the elderly, the immunocompromised and the immunosuppressed, those undergoing cancer treatment, those with leukaemia, who feel that the world has become a very hostile place because they are more at risk in shops or on public transport and in care facilities and so on, and so they can only be safe in such environments if everyone around them is wearing masks and keeping their distance.
“Our political leaders have decided to drop the legal requirement to wear masks and that’s the direction of travel, and that’s fine, but going into a GP surgery or a health care facility, then I would say it is best practice to wear a mask not just to protect yourself from infection but also in order to give protection to those who are more most vulnerable to Covid transmission.”
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