Following the publication of the UK Government’s ‘Living With Covid’ plan, and with the majority of Covid-19 restrictions in England now lifted, Helen Kirrane, our Head of Policy Campaigns and Mobilisation gives our reaction here at Diabetes UK, to the plan and the questions and concerns it raises for people living with diabetes.
People with diabetes have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Not only have they faced significant disruption in access to their healthcare teams, people with diabetes have also had to cope with long periods of uncertainty about their individual level of risk of becoming severely ill from Covid-19.
We know that Omicron still poses a significant threat to some, and that infection levels are still high. That’s why when the Prime Minister announced his Living with Covid-19 plan, we were left disappointed and deeply concerned about a number of aspects.
In particular, we are deeply concerned about the scaling back of free testing which has provided people with diabetes — and others at increased risk of becoming seriously ill if they catch the virus — more confidence to go about their normal lives.
Because Omicron is so highly transmissible, but often without symptoms, we think the sweeping away of all testing for all people who are asymptomatic is unfathomable.
The UK Government is still to announce more detail about which groups will still be able to access testing free of charge. But as an absolute minimum we believe free testing should remain available:
- to all health and social care staff, and all people staying in hospital, whether they have symptoms or not, to keep us all safe when we are at our most vulnerable
- to people who have a greatly weakened immune system due to their condition or treatment, such as some cancer treatments, dialysis or genetics - as well as their household members and other unpaid carers.
We are also calling on the government to cap the cost of testing for all. The impact of testing depends on everyone being able to easily access it, and we believe this is particularly important for:
- people with conditions such as diabetes that still put them at increased risk of becoming severely ill from Covid, and
- people who are out of work or on low incomes, who may otherwise be unable to test due to the barrier of cost.
We are also seeking assurances that the government will be able to ramp up universal access to free testing again if needed, and that they make appropriate and adequate funding available for free testing in the devolved nations of the UK.
Preparing for new waves and new variants
In order to be prepared for further resurgences and new variants, the Government’s Living with Covid-19 plan emphasises the importance of maintaining resilience and infrastructure to scale up a strong response at speed. However, it does not say anything about how future Covid vaccine campaigns would be quickly rolled out if needed, or where the health and care workforce would come from to deliver them.
That’s why we’re calling on the UK Government to:
- Urgently set out clear plans about how they would roll out mass vaccination campaigns at speed in the future
- Ensure these plans do not disrupt care for people with diabetes and other long-term conditions and putting huge additional strain on health professionals working so hard to tackle the care backlog.
This winter we saw routine care for people with diabetes and other long-term conditions pushed further down the priority list, to free up NHS staff to urgently deliver the booster campaign. But this came at a cost for people with diabetes and other conditions whose care had already been put to the back of the queue for so long. Given that it has already been announced that an autumn booster campaign will likely go ahead, it would be negligent to let this happen again.
Vaccination for people with diabetes
The vaccination programme has very significantly reduced the threat that Covid-19 poses to people living with diabetes, and our society more broadly. The numbers of people with diabetes who become seriously ill or sadly die as a result of Covid-19 have drastically reduced due to vaccines. That’s why we strongly recommend all people with diabetes take up the offer of all vaccines and boosters that they are eligible for.
We want to ensure that all people with diabetes are prioritised in the autumn Covid-19 booster rollout which, along with their free NHS flu vaccine, will help ensure they continue to be protected going into the winter months.
If more threatening new variants emerge or data starts to show a significant drop in vaccine protection, we will call for people with diabetes to be given priority status to protect them against the increased risk they face without the vaccine.
Serious illness from Covid-19 in vaccinated people with diabetes
While vaccination remains the best possible protection for people living with diabetes against serious harm from Covid-19, we know from the most recent data available that some fully vaccinated people with diabetes are still being hospitalised or sadly dying as a result of Covid-19 infection.
We don’t yet know the extent to which this is due to their diabetes alone, or to other factors including age and health conditions that impact the immune system, so we’re watching the data closely, and we’ll continue to engage with government to make sure the care, treatments and protections available to people with diabetes reflect the impact of Covid-19 on them.
We’re also still funding research studies into the impact of Covid-19 on people with diabetes.
We expect the Government to publish further guidance for people with greatly weakened immune systems in March, and will be reviewing it when it becomes available.
Importance of good public health policy
As many measures come to an end in England, it is incredibly important that all public health policy, and public health communications, support everyone to stay safe and well.
This includes public health messaging that encourages everyone to do their bit – through vaccines, mask wearing and social distancing where possible, and hand washing – to keep more vulnerable people safe.
We support National Voices’ call that Government should position these steps as ‘protections’ rather than ‘restrictions’ as we believe everyone taking small steps can make a huge difference to the most vulnerable in our society, and the impact the ending of restrictions on these groups.
It is our view that learning to live with Covid-19 should not mean that people with conditions such as diabetes need to live in fear or uncertainty, either from ill health as a result of the virus, or from a lack of access to routine care. We will continue to champion the voices of people with diabetes to ensure their needs are not forgotten as the Government rolls out its plans.