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Hospitals in England relax Covid rules to try to ease a patient backlog.


Across the world during the pandemic, hospitals facing a surge of Covid patients have had to make difficult choices about who receives care and when to postpone treatment or surgery for other patients.

In England, the health system has a backlog of five million patients who are waiting for planned surgeries or treatment. And hundreds of thousands of patients have been waiting for at least a year, according to the National Health Service’s website.

To help ease that crunch, England’s hospitals are now relaxing restrictions that were put in place to deal with the pandemic, though some experts say that the measures cannot be effective unless the problem of acute staffing shortages is also addressed.

“Easing restrictions, like social distancing, may free up capacity in hospitals and alleviate some of the pressure,” said Katharina Hauk, a professor of health economics at Imperial College London. But with a sharp drop in hospital staffing numbers during the pandemic, she noted, “making room for more beds is not going to fix the problem if you don’t have the staff to look after the patients lying in these beds.”

The changes being introduced include reducing physical distancing from two meters to one meter in nonemergency departments, returning to regular cleaning procedures, and eliminating the requirement that patients must quarantine and get tested for Covid before receiving elective surgery.

Sajid Javid, the British health secretary, said that the country’s “phenomenal vaccination campaign” had made the changes possible.

“We can now safely begin to relieve some of the most stringent infection control where they are no longer necessary to benefit patients and ease the burden on hard-working N.H.S. staff,” he said in a statement on the website of the U.K. Health Security Agency, which gives guidance on public health policy and security.

Different coronavirus rules can apply in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

As of Monday, about 82 percent of England’s population age 16 or older are fully inoculated against the coronavirus, and nearly 90 percent have received at least one vaccine dose, according to the N.H.S. website.

Britain’s government announced this month a $7.3 billion package for the health service to try to deal with the soaring waiting lists and bolster the Covid response.

The decision this week to ease hospital restrictions is the latest in a series of moves by the government to return the country to prepandemic levels of normalcy. England lifted all but a few remaining Covid restrictions on July 19. The number of new cases has fluctuated since then.

The seven-day average of new daily coronavirus cases in Britain stood at 34,242 on Tuesday, a 6 percent rise compared with that figure two weeks previously, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. Covid deaths have decreased by 4 percent in that period.

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