Life has returned to normal for millions of people in Britain since the coronavirus restrictions were lifted over the summer. But while the rules are gone, the virus hasn’t.
Many scientists are now calling on the government to reimpose social restrictions and speed up booster vaccinations as coronavirus infection rates, already the highest in Europe, rise further.
The UK recorded 43,738 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, down slightly from the 49,156 reported on Monday, which was the highest number since mid-July. New infections have averaged over 44,000 a day over the past week, a 16% increase from the previous week.
Last week, the Office for National Statistics estimated that one in 60 people in England had the virus, one of the highest levels seen in Britain during the pandemic.
In July, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government lifted all legal restrictions that had been imposed over a year earlier to slow the spread of the virus, including indoor face coverings and social distancing rules . Nightclubs and other crowded places were allowed to open at full capacity, and people were no longer advised to work from home if they could.
Some model makers feared a sharp increase in cases after opening. This did not happen, but infections have remained high and have recently started to increase – especially in children, who remain largely unvaccinated.
Hospitalizations and deaths are also on the rise, which have averaged 130 per day over the past week, with 223 reported on Tuesday alone. That’s much lower than when cases were this high, before much of the population was vaccinated, but still too high, according to government critics. Britain has recorded more than 138,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest total in Europe after Russia.
Against this backdrop, some believe the British were too quick to revert to pre-pandemic behavior. Masks and social distancing have all but disappeared in most settings in England, including schools, although Scotland and other parts of the UK remain somewhat stricter. Even in shops, where masks are recommended, and on the London transport network, where they are mandatory, membership is spotty.
A plan requiring proof of vaccination to attend nightclubs, concerts and other mass events in England has been scrapped by the Conservative government in the face of opposition from lawmakers, although Scotland has introduced a pass program for them. vaccines this month.
Some scientists say that a more important factor is the decrease in immunity. The UK vaccination program got off to a quick start, with vaccines being given to the elderly and vulnerable from December 2020, and so far nearly 80% of those eligible have received two doses. Early onset means that millions of people have been vaccinated for more than six months, and studies have suggested that vaccine protection gradually wanes over time.
Millions of people in Britain are offered booster shots, but critics say the program is moving too slowly, at around 180,000 doses per day. More than half of those eligible for a booster dose have not yet received one.
The UK has also waited longer than the US and many European countries to vaccinate children aged 12 to 15, and only around 15% of this age group in England have been vaccinated since they became eligible last month.
“It is essential that we speed up the recall program,” said epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, a member of the government’s science advisory group for emergencies.
Ferguson said that a factor influencing the high number of cases in the UK was that he had relied heavily on the AstraZeneca vaccine, “and while that protects very well against very severe COVID results, it protects slightly worse than Pfizer against infection and transmission, especially in the face of the delta variant.
He also noted that “most Western European countries have put in place more control measures, vaccine warrants, mask-wearing warrants, and tend to have lower case counts and certainly not. a number of cases that is increasing as fast as we are.
“But at the end of the day, it’s a political decision the government has to make,” he told the BBC.
British scientists are also monitoring a new subvariant of the dominant delta strain of the virus. The mutation, known as AY4.2, represents a small but growing number of cases in Britain.
Francois Balloux, director of the University College London Genetics Institute, said the subvariant may be slightly more transmissible and was “closely monitored”. But he said the evidence suggested “that was not the cause of the recent surge in UK cases”
A report by lawmakers released last week concluded that the UK government had waited too long to impose a lockdown in the early days of the pandemic, missing a chance to contain the disease and resulting in thousands of unnecessary deaths. Critics say he is repeating this mistake.
Last month, the prime minister said the country may need to switch to a ‘plan B’ – reintroducing measures such as mandatory masks and the introduction of vaccine passes – if cases rise so high in the fall and winter that the health system was becoming “unsustainable” strain.
For now, the government says it will not change course, but will try to increase immunization rates, with a new advertising campaign and an increased number of sites outside of schools where children can go. get vaccinated.
Johnson spokesman Max Blain said “we always knew the next few months would be tough.” But he said the government was trying to protect “both lives and livelihoods”.
“It is clear that we are watching very closely the increasing rates of cases,” said Blain. “The most important message for the public to understand is the vital importance of the recall program.
But, he added: “There are no plans to go to plan B.”
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