As UK resists COVID measures, experts fear ‘devastating winter’

As UK resists COVID measures, experts fear ‘devastating winter’

London, United Kingdom – Pressure is mounting on the UK government to tighten restrictions on COVID-19 as infections rise, medical experts warning of a looming crisis.
The UK reported 52,009 new cases on Thursday, the highest daily figure since July 17 and the ninth consecutive day cases have passed the 40,000 mark.

The death toll is also climbing. On Tuesday, authorities recorded the highest daily death toll since early March, with 223 deaths. More than 8,000 people are currently hospitalized with the virus.

Alarmed by the situation, senior health officials publicly urge UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to tackle transmission rates by making face masks mandatory, advising people to work from home and raising awareness of the benefits of ventilated public spaces .

Under a current “plan A” to manage the pandemic in the fall and winter, authorities are focusing on third-shot booster vaccinations for millions of people and offering 12-17 year olds a single dose of the vaccine. produced by Pfizer-BioNTech.

Mask-wearing, which has become much less common in recent months across the country, and social distancing are loosely encouraged but not mandatory.

Without immediate intervention, experts say more will die needlessly and the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is at risk of being overwhelmed.

“If we continue as we are doing now, we are going to have a very alarming and devastating winter crisis,” Zubaida Haque, member of the UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), told Al Jazeera.

“And the worst part is that, unlike last fall and winter, we [now] have the solutions, ”she said, citing the second wave of COVID-19 infections that prompted Johnson to impose lockdowns nationwide.

“We have the vaccines and we know which public health protections are effective… but the government has removed all public health protections to protect the vaccination program. “

While the UK edged out other countries in the early stages of its vaccination campaign, many peer countries in Western Europe have since caught up and even exceeded its vaccination coverage. [File: Carl Recine/Reuters]

Despite the clamor, the government is resisting calls to launch its “Plan B” emergency strategy.

Since the removal of nearly all restrictions in England in mid-July – a day Johnson has dubbed ‘Freedom Day’ – officials have placed their hopes in the national immunization program and the natural immunity built up among the near. UK’s 70 million people to keep COVID-19 in check.

Johnson believes the UK should ‘learn to live with this virus’ and government planning documents state ministers will not pivot to’ Plan B ‘unless the NHS is deemed susceptible to’ unbearable pressure ”.

What is “Plan B”?

As part of “Plan B”, face masks in some contexts would be mandatory and employees would be asked to work from home where possible. So-called vaccine passports could also be introduced, requiring people to show proof of vaccination, recovery from the virus or a recent negative test to enter certain venues or attend mass events.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said on Wednesday the government would not move to its contingency plan “at this point,” but as he warned cases could soon reach 100,000 a day, he warned that the slower vaccination would increase the likelihood of restrictions.

But the president of the British Medical Association, Chaand Nagpaul, said it was time to act “now is”.

“It is deliberately remiss of the Westminster government to take no other action to reduce the spread of infection, such as mandatory mask wear, physical distancing and ventilation requirements in high-pressure environments. risk, especially overcrowded indoor spaces, ”Nagpaul said in a statement Wednesday.

“These are measures that are the norm in many other countries,” he added, describing the UK as an “international outlier” when it comes to controlling the pandemic.

Critics have decried the UK throughout the pandemic, suggesting it was slow to lock in during waves one and two in 2020, then too quick to lift restrictions this year.

“We are rapidly approaching a position where, once again, the government is delaying too long and reluctant to act. Now is the time to learn the lessons of the past and act quickly, otherwise we will be faced with much more extreme measures later, ”Nagpaul said.

Johnson’s government has been repeatedly criticized for its handling of COVID-19 [File: Paul Grover/Pool via Reuters]

“A striking defeat from the claws of victory”

Elsewhere in Western Europe, masks are compulsory and vaccination certificates are used. In these countries, like France, Italy and Spain, rates of infection, hospitalizations and deaths are lower than in the United Kingdom.

Christina Pagel, a member of SAGE and director of the Clinical Operations Research Unit at University College London, said the disparity demonstrated the UK’s over-reliance on vaccines.

About 86 percent of people aged 12 and older received a first dose of the vaccine, while 79 percent were fully immunized with two doses.

“Vaccines alone will not be able to control this pandemic unless you reach a stage where over 90% of the population is protected,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Relatively minor behavioral changes could bring cases down quite quickly,” she said, suggesting mandatory mask wear in environments such as classrooms, increased emphasis on ventilation in public spaces and the use of vaccination passports.

“We need more things, at least until we come to a situation where we have vaccinated enough people,” she said. “We have seen that in other European countries, where they weren’t fully relying on their vaccination schedule, they had much better control over COVID and are now entering winter with much lower rates. “

The UK got a head start at the start of its vaccination campaign, but comparable Western European countries have since caught up and exceeded its vaccination coverage.

Britain’s efforts are now hampered by a slow campaign to provide reminders for people over 50, as well as a drop in vaccination among young adults and adolescents, just as students are returning in schools and universities.

The decline in immunity in those who were bitten early on and the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant have also contributed to the current crisis.

“The UK’s response was to wrest defeat from the clutches of victory,” Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, told Al Jazeera. “We looked in a good place after the initial vaccine rollout, but now the situation looks really grim. “

Altmann admitted that the UK may have to ‘learn to live with COVID-19’ given the improbability of eliminating the virus entirely, but warned that this should not mean abandoning efforts to contain it.

“We seem to use the term rather as a synonym for ‘learning to tolerate a truly tragic level of completely preventable deaths because we cannot be bothered by simple mitigation measures’,” he said. “This is not how we should practice medicine. “

UK official death toll from COVID-19 now stands at nearly 140,000 [File: Toby Melville/Reuters]


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