The autumn and winter plan sets out a strategy to protect the NHS through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and a challenging flu season

Healthcare professional in PPE

The UK Government has published COVID-19 response: autumn and winter plan, which outlines a strategy to cope with seasonal pressures on the NHS and the ongoing pandemic.

The Government plans to achieve this strategy by:

  • building defences through pharmaceutical interventions: vaccines, antivirals, and disease-modifying therapeutics
  • identifying and isolating positive cases of COVID-19 to limit transmission: test, trace, and isolate
  • supporting the NHS and social care: managing pressures and recovering services
  • advising people on how to protect themselves and others: clear guidance and communications
  • pursuing an international approach: helping to vaccinate the world and managing risks at the border.

This is the Government’s plan A, an approach intended to steer the country through autumn and winter 2021–2022. However, the last 18 months have shown that the pandemic can change course rapidly and unexpectedly.

In addition, winter is always a challenging time for the NHS. This winter could be particularly difficult due to the impacts of COVID-19, as well as the usual increase in emergency demand and seasonal respiratory diseases such as flu. It is predicted that the impact of flu may be greater this winter, due to very low levels of flu during winter 2020–2021. There is considerable uncertainty over how these pressures will interact with the impact of COVID-19.

The Government says it will monitor the data closely, and will take action to support and protect the NHS when necessary. If plan A is not sufficient to keep the virus at sustainable levels, the document outlines a plan B, with further measures to protect the NHS. These include advising the public to behave more cautiously, legally mandating face coverings in certain settings, and introducing mandatory vaccine-only COVID-status certification in certain settings.

‘Challenging winter’

Responding to the Government’s plan, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, British Medical Association Council Chair, said: ‘The NHS is heading into an incredibly challenging winter: GPs and hospital doctors are already under immense pressure having to contend with COVID-19 and the likely onslaught of flu, while services are overstretched with trying to treat the huge backlogs of care, with patients suffering on long waiting lists for the treatment they need.

‘It’s only right that Government has decided to press ahead with implementing a booster vaccine programme to control the spread of COVID, and we’re pleased to see that healthcare workers are included in that. However, vaccination will never offer 100% protection and with high rates of infection, we must act now and introduce other measures if we’re to keep the health service afloat this winter.’

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