NHS England has told patients and staff they should continue to wear face masks in GP practices and other healthcare settings after Covid restrictions end in England.
Today’s clarification comes after GPs called for the Government and NHS to be clearer with the public about the fact that infection prevention and control guidance for healthcare settings will not change on Monday (19 July).
The Government has already confirmed that legal Covid-19 restrictions will end in England next week, with the summer ‘roadmap’ stating that ‘the legal requirements to wear a face covering will be lifted in all settings’.
However, wearing a face mask in healthcare settings was never a legal requirement, and Public Health England told Pulse earlier in the week that there were ‘no plans’ to change IPC guidance.
In today’s NHS England announcement, chief nursing officer Ruth May said ‘face coverings and social distancing measures will remain in place across healthcare settings so that the most vulnerable people can continue to safely attend hospital, their GP surgery, pharmacy or any other healthcare settings for advice, care and treatment’.
She said the measure was important to ‘help protect our staff and patients, particularly those who may be more vulnerable to infections’.
And she added: ‘As restrictions are lifted in many places on Monday everyone has a part to play in helping to control Covid by getting vaccinated and acting responsibly.
‘It is vital that in healthcare settings, we do all we can to reduce the risk of infection for those working in our services and those who need our care.’
Health minister Jo Churchill also said face coverings had helped to protect vulnerable patients, staff and visitors by limiting the spread of Covid in the NHS and that the face mask ‘guidance remains in place’.
Ms Churchill said: ‘We expect patients, visitors and NHS staff to continue using face coverings and maintain social distancing in all healthcare settings as we cautiously lift restrictions on Monday.
‘I urge everyone to play their part and think of those more vulnerable than you when visiting your local hospital or GP surgery.’
NHS England said it would continue to support staff in ensuring that the guidance is followed in all healthcare settings.
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, said simple steps such as wearing a face mask and keeping a safe distance can have a profound impact on protecting the most vulnerable.
‘It is absolutely right that basic infection prevention and control measures stay in place in healthcare settings.’
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: ‘This confirmation is exactly what health leaders across the country needed to hear as we head towards the final coronavirus restrictions lifting in England as it will validate their intention to continue following the existing infection control guidelines.
‘It is not too much to ask of those visiting or using NHS services to continue wearing a mask and respecting social distancing measures if it can keep themselves and those around them safe from this horrible disease.’
Pulse had asked the Department of Health and Social Care to clarify its position on the wearing of face masks, after Monday’s roadmap seemed to promise further guidance on the matter.
It said: ‘To help reduce the spread of Covid-19, published guidance will advise that wearing a face covering will reduce your risk and the risk to others, where you come into contact with people you don’t normally meet in enclosed and crowded spaces.’
However, the DHSC could not immediately point Pulse to any such guidance.
It comes as Pulse revealed this week that GPs have been threatened with legal action by patients who object to being asked to wear a face covering in their practice.
And a large BMA survey showed 91% of doctors wanted face masks to remain mandatory in GP practices and other healthcare settings.