Patients in waiting rooms in England are no longer required to socially distance

On 14 April 2022, the Government introduced new ‘stepping down’ rules which apply to NHS hospitals, GP surgeries and emergency departments. As part of these rules, in England, there is no longer a requirement for patients to socially distance in waiting rooms. This is demonstrative of the Government’s ‘Living with COVID-19’ approach that they are continuing to implement.

What are the ‘stepping down’ rules – what’s changed?

The new ‘stepping down’ rules mean that patients with COVID-19 will now only have to isolate for one week instead of 10 days, subject to them producing negative Lateral Flow Tests (“LFTs”) or rapid antigen detection tests on days 6 and 7. In addition, people who are exposed to the virus but do not display any sign of symptoms will no longer have to isolate at all.

What is driving the change in rules?

Senior NHS bosses said that the rules have changed because of the mounting pressures from COVID-19 continuing. This was evidenced in a letter to local health services where NHS bosses said that rules needed to adapt with COVID-19 because the virus was still widely circulating and because it is likely to remain endemic for the foreseeable future.

Chris Hopson, Chief Executive of NHS Providers (an organisation representing hospital trusts) said:

“We know at the moment that they are very important to protect vulnerable people but they also make it a lot more complex to run a hospital, get through care backlogs and provide emergency care. What these rules are saying is each individual hospital needs to review where it is up to in terms of local infection rates but also seeing how many rooms they have in a hospital too.”

On 19 April 2022, speaking in Parliament Health Secretary Sajid Javid said:

“The NHS and social care are facing unprecedented pressure because of the pandemic. In NHS settings and adult social care, there has been a necessity for infection-protection controls. Staff absences have been higher than in normal times but the NHS has been stepping forward to bring support with the record funding that the government is providing both to the NHS and to adult social care

There is a great deal of concern over accident-and-emergency waiting times amidst a rising backlog of planned surgeries. These new relaxed ‘stepping down’ rules are aimed at empowering hospitals. In turn this will give them greater freedom and flexibility to make decisions based on local infection rates  and means that they will not be subject to nation-wide strict rules which may further hamper the backlog of planned surgeries.

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