People across the country are being urged to once again wear face masks and to stay at home if they feel unwell, amid mounting pressure on the the NHS in the wake of an influx of winter illnesses.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has issued the advice to the British public as hospitals struggle with soaring rates of COVID, flu and Strep A, with health bosses warning a lack of precaution could cause unnecessary death.

A medical chief has urged adults to stay at home when feeling unwell or wear protective face coverings when going outside in order to minimise the spread of infections and illness.

Professor Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the UKHSA, listed numerous means of prevention to limit and reduce the level of scarlet fever and COVID-19 cases, currently at “high levels”.

Young man in Birmingham on public transport wearing a face mask due to COVID coronavirus measuresAdam Yosef
Health officials have urged people to wear face masks again to prevent a spread of winter illnesses

As part of the UKHSA’s “simple steps” to help protect children and vulnerable individuals as pupils return to schools and universities after the festive break, Prof Hopkins also advised that adults should not “visit vulnerable people unless urgent” when feeling unwell.

The adviser also emphasised the importance of children with a fever or ill health to stay home from school or nursery in order to minimise the spread of infection in schools and other education and childcare settings.

Responding to health workers highlighting excessive levels of pressure on NHS services, the government has said it is “working tirelessly” to ensure patient care and recognises the increasing pressures, saying it was providing £14.1bn in additional funding for health and social care over the next two years, as well as an extra £500m to try to speed up hospital discharges.

Head of the NHS Confederation Matthew Taylor said: “This is the toughest winter they’ve ever dealt with,” adding “We cannot go on like this.”

“It’s clear that the NHS is very fragile at the moment, and it doesn’t take much to push it off kilter. That’s why we continue our plea to the Prime Minister and trade unions to resume talks in order to avert planned and future strikes. Without a swift national resolution, patients will continue to suffer and that can’t be allowed to happen.”

Mounting pressure on the NHS and it services has left health workers unable to cope with an influx of diseases and infections in patients Makizox
Mounting pressure on NHS services has left health workers unable to cope with an influx of diseases and infections in patients

Are masks compulsory?

Downing Street has stressed that it is “not compulsory” to wear a mask while ill, noting the advice from health officials was “longstanding” but stressed it was “not mandatory”.

Speaking to LBC, Transport Secretary Mark Harper said that “wearing a mask is very sensible if you are ill”.

Asked for the Government’s opinion on the UKHSA’s guidance, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister said: “Obviously that’s advice they put out. I think that is pretty longstanding advice.

Face masks are recommended by health officials but not compulsory according to the government Alexandra Koch
Face masks are recommended by health officials but not compulsory according to the government

“It remains health advice to the public — it is not mandatory. People need their judgment.”

“Certainly people will continue to use their good sense, having spent a long time dealing… with these kinds of infectious illnesses.”

However, the representative insisted wearing of face masks was not obligatory.

“What you’ll see is, as has often been the case, if people are ill, they are advised to stay at home.

“Obviously people can choose to wear a mask if they wish to. It is not compulsory.

“This is advice from UKHSA rather than government ministers telling people what to do, as we saw during the height of the pandemic before the emergence of vaccines.”

Viruses and infections

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has warned about the rise in scarlet fever and invasive group A strep casesUKHSA
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has warned about the rise in scarlet fever and invasive group A strep cases

The UKHSA has warned that both flu and COVID-19 are currently “circulating at high levels” and likely to continue to increase in the coming weeks.

High numbers of scarlet fever, which is caused by group A Streptococcus (Strep A), also continue to be reported in the UK. At least 30 children in the UK have died from invasive Strep A, and across all age groups in England, there have been 122 fatalities in total.

The health agency has also encouraged the prevention of spreading illness by “catching coughs and sneezes in tissues then binning them,” getting children to practice good hygiene, and getting a flu vaccination.

“Remember that flu vaccination is still available for all eligible groups and is the best protection against the virus,” said Prof Hopkins.

“We have seen good uptake in older age groups, but vaccination among young children remains low.

“Flu can be very unpleasant and in some cases can lead to more serious illness. Getting your child vaccinated protects them and others they come into contact with, and it’s still not too late.”

Children eligible to have a flu vaccination include those aged two and three on 31 August 2022, all primary school-aged children and some secondary school-aged children.

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