Nightingale Covid surge hubs make sense as part of the PM’s low-restrictions Omicron plan

On the face of it, allowing people to cram into sweaty pubs and clubs, singing and shouting in each other’s faces on New Year’s Eve seems odd when we have a record level of Covid cases.

When, at the same time, the NHS is setting up de facto field hospitals with a series of Nightingale “surge hubs” to prepare for a potential wave of hospital admissions, it may seem like madness to some.

But there may well be a method in Boris Johnson’s thinking.

The Prime Minister has chosen against imposing any more restrictions beyond relatively light-touch plan B mask rules and work-from-home guidance.

Given that unsustainable pressure on the NHS is the only factor that will change his mind, it makes sense to boost hospital bed capacity to ensure that the prospect of that pressure is pushed further away.

There is lockdown fatigue among the public, and legitimate questions about whether limiting freedoms and damaging the economy further is justified when it is becoming increasingly clear the Omicron variant is milder, and when all adults have been given the opportunity to have three Covid jabs.

Indeed, setting up the Nightingales could be seen as evidence Mr Johnson is listening to scientists who warn that despite being milder, Omicron’s higher transmissibility means it could still put the NHS under unsustainable pressure.

That said, there are holes in the plan.

First of all, it is unclear who will work at the Nightingale hubs when an already-understaffed NHS is being hit with a wave of Covid isolation absences.

Secondly, a key plank of Mr Johnson’s strategy is urging the public to take precautions, like taking a test.

But the testing system is creaking under the volume of infections, and many will be going out on New Year’s Eve without knowing if they have Covid and can spread it to others.

Ministers will be hoping that a natural reduction in social contacts in January both slows the spread of Covid and reduces demand for testing, and vindicates the PM’s high-risk strategy.

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