The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has said that hospitals in England can begin to relax some infection, prevention and control measures in order to ease pressure on the NHS this winter.

The initial recommendations include three interventions which relate to social distancing, testing and cleaning practices:

  1. Physical distancing can be reduced from two metres to one metre with appropriate mitigations in place where patient access can be controlled.
  2. Going forward, patients who are in low-risk groups, are fully vaccinated and asymptomatic will only be required to show proof of a negative lateral flow test on the day of their operation. Previously, patients were required to show proof of a negative PCR test and self-isolate for three days prior to their operation. Patients who are contacts of a confirmed case of Covid-19 will still need to go through this PCR pathway.
  3. Enhanced cleaning procedures can be dropped in low-risk areas such as planned or scheduled elective care and providers can revert to standard cleaning procedures between patients. This change is due to new evidence from the WHO and other international authorities that says there is little evidence that the virus is transmissible via surfaces.

The health secretary, Sajid Javid, said the success of the vaccination programme has allowed the government to approve these measures, since high numbers of the population are now protected from the virus.

He said: “As ever more people benefit from the protection of our phenomenal vaccination campaign, we can now safely begin to relieve some of the most stringent infection control measures where they are no longer necessary to benefit patients and ease the burden on hardworking NHS staff.”

What does this mean for people with learning disabilities and autism and those caring for them?

Hopefully, the relaxing of these measures will make it easier for people with learning disabilities to get healthcare appointments and avoid long waiting times. However, because people with learning disabilities may have health conditions that make them more vulnerable to becoming seriously ill with Covid-19, it’s important that some precautions remain in place.

The Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) says it is vital that care providers ensure their staff and the people they support are still maintaining good personal hygiene and maintaining infection control measures where possible.

This can be challenging to enforce in some care settings as often they are designed to be homely, with an emphasis on comfort and domesticity, not infection control. Good role modelling by staff is therefore essential, not least because some people may find the changed routines hard to handle.

The SCIE suggest both staff and patients ensure they:

  • Wash their hand with soap and water often (for at least 20 seconds)
  • Use hand sanitiser gel is soap and water are not available
  • Wash your hands as soon as you get home
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve when you cough or sneeze
  • Put used tissues in the bin immediately and wash hands afterwards.

People with learning disabilities and autism may also need help to understand why it is necessary to take extra precautions, such as wearing PPE or keeping at a safe distance. Health and care professionals should therefore make sure they involve the individual in these discussions so they have the best chance of understanding what is happening and maintaining control over their lives.