The updated guidance, published by the UKHSA, focuses on protecting those who are most at risk from the virus

COVID virus visualisation

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has published updated guidance to support the next stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, which focuses on protecting those who are most at risk from the virus. 

The guidance offers advice for those with symptoms of respiratory infections such as COVID-19, for people with a positive COVID-19 test and their contacts, and on safer behaviours for everyone.

Dame Jenny Harries, Chief Executive of the UKHSA, said: ‘The pandemic is not over, and how the virus will develop over time remains uncertain. COVID still poses a real risk to many of us, particularly with high case rates and hospitalisations.’

In February this year, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies said that there are a range of possible futures for the pandemic. It considered the following four scenarios feasible for the next 12–18 months, although emphasised that they are not predictions:

  • reasonable best case—a relatively small resurgence in Autumn/Winter 2022/23, with low levels of severe disease
  • central optimistic—a seasonal wave of infections in Autumn/Winter 2022/23, with a comparable size and realised severity to the current Omicron wave
  • central pessimistic—emergence of a new variant of concern resulting in a large wave of infections, potentially at short notice and outside of Autumn/Winter 2022/23, with severe disease and mortality concentrated in certain groups—for example, unvaccinated, vulnerable, and elderly people
  • reasonable worst case—a very large wave of infections, with increased levels of severe disease, seen across a broad range of the population, although the most severe health outcomes continue to be felt primarily among those with no prior immunity.

Vaccination: the best way to protect people

In its updated plan, the Government highlighted that the objective in the next phase of the COVID-19 response is to enable the country to ‘manage COVID-19 like other respiratory illnesses’, while ‘minimising mortality, and retaining the ability to respond if a new variant emerges with more dangerous properties than the Omicron variant’, or during periods of waning immunity that may ‘place the NHS under unsustainable pressure.’

The UKHSA said that, in order to meet these objectives, it will structure its ongoing response around the following principles:

  • living with COVID-19—removing domestic restrictions while encouraging safer behaviours through public health advice, in common with long-standing ways of managing most other respiratory illnesses
  • protecting those most vulnerable to COVID-19—through Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation-guided vaccination, and deploying targeted testing
  • maintaining resilience—ongoing surveillance, contingency planning, and the ability to reintroduce key capabilities, such as mass vaccination and testing in an emergency
  • securing innovations and opportunities from the COVID-19 response, including investment in life sciences.

The UKHSA pointed out that ‘vaccines underpin all of these principles.’ As of 16 February 2022, 91% of the population aged over 12 years had received a first dose, 85% a second dose, and 66% a booster dose.

‘Vaccination remains the best way to protect us all from severe disease and hospitalisation’, said Dame Harries.

Simple steps to help keep everyone safe

The UKHSA guidance explains that:

  • people with symptoms of a respiratory infection, such as COVID-19, who have a high temperature or do not feel well, should try to stay at home and avoid contact with others
  • those who choose to test for COVID-19, or who are asked to test, and get a positive result should try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people for 5 days following the day of their positive result
  • children and young people who are asymptomatic, who choose to test for COVID-19 and get a positive result, are advised to stay at home and avoid contact with other people for 3 days after the day of the test.

The guidance also emphasises that it is particularly important that a person with symptoms of a respiratory infection, such as COVID-19, avoids close contact with people whose immune system means that they are at higher risk of serious illness. If a person has tested positive for COVID-19, they should avoid those people who are at higher risk of serious illness for a 10-day period.

If a person does need to leave their home while they have symptoms of a respiratory infection such as COVID-19, or within 5 days following the day of their positive test, the guidance advises they ‘take important precautions to minimise the chance of passing on their infection’—such as wearing a well-fitting face covering or a face mask, avoiding crowded or enclosed spaces such as public transport, large social gatherings, and enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces, and exercising outdoors and away from others.

The UKHSA recommends ways to help to reduce the spread of infections and protect others, including getting vaccinated, ventilating indoor spaces, wearing a face covering or mask in certain situations such as crowded or enclosed spaces, and keeping up good hand and respiratory hygiene.

Dame Harries said: ‘As we learn to live with COVID, we encourage people to keep following simple steps to help keep themselves and others safe.’ She added: ‘That is why it is sensible to wear a mask in crowded, enclosed spaces, keep indoor spaces ventilated, and stay away from others if you have any symptoms of a respiratory illness.’

This article originally appeared on Medscape, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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