New COVID-19 Variant on the Rise

A new COVID-19 variant, BA.2, is on the rise in Scotland and it looks like England and Wales are next. This comes on top of a new government policy to live with COVID-19. Further, this new strain, as with the others, appears to have a greater negative impact on older populations.

BA.2 – Current Situation

Data suggests that around 85% of the cases in Scotland are this new variant and ONS estimates that on 11 March 2022 Scotland was experiencing its highest COVID-19 infection rate since sampling began in September 2020. Further, figures from 9 March 2022 show that the number of people in Scottish hospitals reached their highest levels in 13 months, with 27 in intensive care. While this new strain appears to be more transmissible than Omicron, there is no data to suggest that this variant is any more severe than previous strains of COVID-19.

Provider Impact

What do rising infection rates mean for the older population and those who care for them? According to Professor Sir Gregor Smith, running parallel to this data, there is a trend of the older population being impacted and having longer lengths of stay in hospital.  This comes on top of a huge NHS backlog and lack of capacity. Originally this was being offset by using care home providers for extra beds, but amidst the current staffing crisis it seems that not even care providers will have extra capacity to take these patients on if the NHS cannot handle them.

There are also issues around protecting vulnerable populations without encroaching on individual freedoms too much. When the government decided to live with COVID-19 they maintained a more cautious approach in care settings. This meant that care settings still have testing and isolation protocols that do not apply to the wider public. However, restrictions on visitors have been lifted and service users have more freedom to move about the home and go out into the community when they choose.

The main concerns for providers with both of these issues is how it will impact their ability to provide care in line with the regulations. In particular, it will affect Regulation 12 (Safe Care and Treatment) of the Health and Social Care Act 2008 (Regulated Activities) Regulations 2014, which covers aspects of infection prevention and control (“IPC”) when providing care including admission into care homes, testing and isolation, cleaning protocols, and management of visitors.

Conclusion

A new more transmissible variant has the possibility of tightening restrictions in care settings.  Will we see the government do another 180 degree turn and put us into lockdown again if infection rates and hospitalisations soar? It seems unlikely as last week Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the UK government had “no concerns at all” about sub-variants and that Omicron was the last variant of concern.

All in all providers will want to be vigilant to the COVID-19 trends in their areas and ensure that they stay ahead of the of the spread of the virus by continually updating and reviewing their IPC policies to ensure they are in line with the regulations and current government guidance.

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