The United Kingdom is struggling with one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in Europe, despite the early success of its vaccination campaign — calling into question the liberal health policy of Boris Johnson’s government.
Figures released on Monday showed that another 49,156 people tested positive in the latest 24-hour period, the highest number since mid-July.
Over the past fortnight, new infections have fluctuated between 35,000 and 45,000 daily cases. On October 12 the incidence rate hit 410 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, much higher than in the rest of Europe and nearly 10 times more than in France (44). Only Romania, Serbia and the Baltic countries are in a worse situation.
In July, Johnson’s government lifted most remaining coronavirus restrictions, at a time when many European countries were moving to introduce health passes. At this month’s ruling Conservative Party conference, the prime minister’s focus was very much on post-pandemic recovery.
Scientists explain the soaring daily cases by the large number of tests carried out in the United Kingdom. At nearly 900,000 per day, this is far higher than the equivalent number in countries such as Germany and France — where since mid-October tests are no longer automatically covered by insurance.
Another reason scientists attribute to the surge is the fact that young Britons — including the over-12s who have only been eligible for vaccination since September — are tested several times a week at school.
The infection rate among older children “is clearly the driving force behind this sustained tide of new infections,” says Professor Simon Clarke of the University of Reading, warning that the high case numbers may put vulnerable people around them at risk.
Relaxed rules questioned
The United Kingdom, one of Europe’s hardest-hit countries by the pandemic with more than 138,000 deaths, has relaxed restrictions more than most. The number of large indoor events without the need for a vaccine passport has increased, and compulsory mask-wearing in England ended in July.
Scotland has introduced a vaccine passport scheme for nightclubs and large events since October 1, enforceable by law. Yet coronavirus cases there also remain high.
Some 15% of Britons never wear a mask, compared to around 5% among their European neighbours, according to a YouGov survey in mid-October. Even on public transport in London, where masks remain compulsory, the rule is ignored by a high proportion of passengers.
Some scientists are now calling on the government to review its policy, especially with the approach of winter, always a tense period for hospitals. They want the government to activate its “plan B”, which provides for the return of certain measures, such as wearing a mask indoors or encouraging home-working, in the event of a deterioration over the winter.
“We always knew the coming months could be challenging,” a spokesman for the prime minister said on Monday.
“Obviously different countries are potentially at different stages of their vaccination programmes and have different measures in place, so it’s difficult to compare and contrast,” he added. “But it’s important to strike the right balance between protecting lives and livelihoods.”
Spotlight on booster jabs
The British vaccination programme started much faster than in the rest of Europe, and nearly 45 million people are now fully vaccinated (79% of those over 12).
The campaign has significantly reduced the link between infection and severe forms of the disease, with currently 7,086 people hospitalised (there were nearly 40,000 in January) and 972 deaths due to COVID-19 over the last seven days.
Some experts say the country is now paying for the early progress made. The first people to be vaccinated, the most fragile, are now experiencing a drop in immunity to the virus. This is especially the case among the many who were jabbed with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine — whose effectiveness wears off quicker than that of its competitors, according to some studies.
The British government launched its booster campaign in mid-September, which is open to people over 50 and carers. But only 41% of those vaccinated more than six months ago have so far received their new injection, compared to 45% in France.
The government says everything possible is being done to contact people who are eligible for booster jabs, and will continue to step up its campaigns.