NHS board meeting: COVID alert level recommended to be lowered, vaccine rollout hailed and pandemic report

The first NHS board meeting since January took place yesterday with representatives from NHS England and Improvement, NHSX, and NHS Digital attending. The meeting was chaired by David Prior, Chair of NHS England. 

Sir Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of the NHS, talked first about the status of the NHS and the COVID-19 pandemic. He offered an update on COVID hospitalisations, which were at 34,000 in January, but are now at 4,000. Stevens called this a “sharp decrease” and said that the combination of the lockdown and expansive vaccine rollout has caused the rapid decline.  

As a result of the pressure easing on the hospital system, Sir Simon has recommended that the NHS alert level be lowered from 4 to 3. The NHS has been on alert level 4 for most of the pandemic and is an indicator of the current readiness and capacity of the healthcare system.  

Regarding the vaccine rollout, the Chief Executive also laid out the vaccination strategy for the upcoming month. Sir Simon said “there will a be a particular focus on second doses” in April, which will be known as “second dose” month, as supplies slow down and the JCVI priority groups 1-9 are fully vaccinated. 

Sir Simon also fielded a question about how the NHS will use the flu jab and COVID vaccine together in autumn but replied that there won’t be any decisions made on this until the summer, when more data from trials becomes available.  

Sir Simon also mentioned the completion of the ICS (Integrated Care Systems) rollout across England. The final 13 areas have recently been confirmed to complete the process. 

Laura Wade-Gery, Chair of NHS Digital, gave a summary of the effort the organisation had put in over the past 12 months. She said the “NHS had taken itself by surprise” after such an expansive and rapid rollout of digital services and that it had been “an amazing year” for digital progress. She also pointed out that the adaptation was “an opportunity to build on” for digital services within the NHS.  

Andrew Morris, a non-executive director from NHS Improvement, added that after the pandemic “waiting lists will be the biggest challenge for the next two years.” 

Emily Lawson, who is heading the vaccine deployment, noted that the NHS is “on track” to meet the target of mid-April to vaccinate JCVI priority groups 1-9. On the next steps, after groups 1-9 are complete, JCVI guidance on how to deploy the vaccine in the remaining groups is expected to be released “in the next few weeks.” 

Alongside the board meeting, Stephen Powis, National Medical Director, announced the release of the COVID-19 summary report, which takes an in-depth look at how the NHS coped with the pandemic. The report is available online and has been released as part of the NHS long-term plan, with Powis adding that “COVID is something we will learn to live with beyond this year.”