A summer resurgence of Covid cases has prompted some GP surgeries reinstate mask rules for patients, weeks after a new variant was detected.
A practice in Leicester last week reinstated guidance, urging people to wear a mask, as a “precautionary measure” to protect vulnerable patients.
Another in Essex warned that an “increasing number of Covid patients and staff” had prompted the move.
A rise in infections across the country has seen Covid hospitalizations in England hit a five-month high.
Health officials confirmed yesterday that a total of 42 cases of the supermutated Pirola Covid variant have been detected in the UK, up from 36 last week.
The east of England had the highest number of cases thanks to a massive outbreak of 28 cases at a care home in Norfolk at the end of August.
A practice in Leicester last week reinstated guidance, urging people to wear a mask, as a “precautionary measure” to protect vulnerable patients. Another in Essex warned that an “increasing number of Covid patients and staff” had prompted the move. A rise in infections across the country has seen Covid hospitalizations in England hit a five-month high.
Mukta Modi, director of Canon Street Medical Center in Leicester, told GP magazine Legumes: ‘We are preparing for the autumn vaccination programs and this is a precautionary measure to protect staff and our vulnerable patients.
“This has been discussed with our patient engagement group, who have been very supportive.”
Dr Grant Ingrams, chairman of the Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland Local Medical Committee (LMC), told MailOnline today: ‘Every practice is different, with significant variation in the number of staff and patients who are at increased risk of contracting Covid or have complications.
“In addition, many surgeries have very little space, meaning patients have to sit or stand close together in reception and waiting areas.”
He added: ‘Practices are private businesses and have a legal duty to protect their staff and patients under health and safety legislation, and this includes against infection.
“Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland LMC support all practices to carry out a risk assessment and implement whatever protection they deem necessary, which may include the use of masks.”
While the true prevalence of the virus is unclear, data from the ZOE Covid study, which tracks self-reported infections, suggests there were 97,904 new daily cases of symptomatic infection on September 13, almost double the 50,000 it reported at the beginning of August.
The study, which is based on data from millions of ZOE app users, estimates that around 1.29 million in the UK are currently infected – around one in 52 people.
The figure is the highest in five months, but it is remains far lower than the figure estimated during previous peaks: it reported that 3.8 million people were infected in April 2022.
Until June last year, patients were required to wear face masks at GP surgeries.
Updated NHS guidance at the time told practices that patients, other than those with respiratory symptoms, are “not required” to wear a mask unless they wish to do so as a “personal preference”.
However, health and care staff were advised to continue wearing masks as part of PPE when working with suspected or confirmed Covid patients, including those working with patients not classified in primary care.
It comes as a caller, known only as Caroline, spoke to TalkTV on Wednesday claiming the unnamed GP she works at in Essex had asked staff to “mask again”.
In a message sent to staff earlier in the week, it said: “Due to the increasing number of Covid patients and staff, I am afraid we must ask you to return to wearing a mask at work from tomorrow.”
“We hope that by using them again during the surge we can protect and care for each other and set an example for patients.”
The message also confirmed that the practice would review the “use of masks on a regular basis”, it said.
She told TalkTV: “I texted them back and said I wouldn’t use them and would try to keep my distance if they were worried.”
“They also wanted us to retest if we weren’t feeling well.”
Globally, more than 100 cases of Pirola have been detected, including Denmark, South Africa and the United States.
Virologists have warned that it is too early to reliably identify specific symptoms, but they could include a runny nose, sore throat and fatigue.
In recent weeks, scientists have recommended the return of pandemic mitigation measures, including the use of masks and increased ventilation due to the resurgence of the virus.
Some virologists also urged ministers to reconsider eligibility criteria for vaccines, after the government abandoned plans last month to offer Covid jabs to under-65s during the autumn vaccine rollout which began on Monday.
Although some experts questioned whether they were ever necessary, studies have repeatedly shown that wearing masks can reduce virus transmission.
Last month, a Royal Society report also found that “the use and requirement to wear face masks was an effective approach to reducing infection.”
Researchers said studies consistently reported that the measures were an effective approach to reducing infection, even though officials gave conflicting messages about their effectiveness early in the pandemic.
Other evidence from studies in healthcare settings also showed that higher quality “respiratory” masks, such as N95 masks, were “more effective than surgical-type masks,” they added.
However, researchers noted that as the pandemic progressed and the virus became more transmissible, non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) became less effective in controlling the spread of the virus.
It comes after UKHSA data yesterday showed Covid hospitalizations are at their highest level since April.
Admissions among patients who tested positive for the virus rose to 4.6 per 100,000 people in the week to September 10, official figures show.
This is up from 3.7 per 100,000 the previous week and the highest since the week ending April 30.
This is still a fraction of the level reached last winter, when the rate stood at 11.8 per 100,000. It is also well below the numbers seen during the first year of the pandemic.
However, for two months the exchange rate has shown a clear upward trend.
Rates remain highest among people ages 85 and older, at 51.1 per 100,000, and among people ages 75 to 84, at 21.2 per 100,000.
Experts predict Covid cases will continue to rise as the UK heads into autumn and people mix more indoors.
The British are also not carrying out mass testing as they did at the beginning of the pandemic, and community testing will end in May 2022.
Confirmed cases are therefore an underestimate of how many Britons are infected with Covid and how many of them have the new Pirola variant.
Yesterday, UKHSA confirmed that a total of 42 cases of the supermutated strain, known scientifically as BA.2.86, have been detected in the UK, up from 36 last week.
Of the 37 cases in England detected up to September 11, seven had been hospitalized, while two were detected among emergency room patients. No deaths have been recorded among those infected.
Public Health Scotland has reported around 5 BA.2.86 cases. There have been no reported cases of Ice Cold in Wales and Northern Ireland.
Pirola, like other recently emerged Covid variants, is a derivative of the Omicron strain.
However, its large number of mutations, 35 in total, raised alarm and some experts feared it was different enough to effectively circumvent the protection offered by Covid vaccines and infection from previous waves.
The UKHSA said it is currently analyzing blood samples taken from NHS workers to test how effective the immune response generated by Covid injections is against Pirola.
Experiments are also underway to determine how effective lateral flow tests are in detecting Pirola.