UK Covid-19: Boris Johnson declared the pandemic all but over. Now cases are soaring


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“We are sacrificing our chance to see loved ones this Christmas, so we have a better chance of protecting their lives so we can see them at future Christmases,” Johnson said, taking a potentially career-defining step that he had ruled out just days earlier.

But the Delta variant — more transmissible still than the Alpha strain which wrecked last year’s festivities — has not gone away.

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The country has quietly endured stubbornly high cases, hospitalizations and deaths when compared to the rest of Europe. Britain has registered nearly half a million cases in the past two weeks — and almost 50,000 on Monday — more than France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined. The UK reported 223 deaths on Tuesday, the highest daily figure since early March.

Johnson has strayed from much of the European Union in his approach; while a number of countries on the continent have introduced vaccine passports, England halted its original plan to do so. Mask-wearing and social distancing and other measures are no longer required by law in Britain.

That contrasts with far stricter measures in several European nations, where proof of vaccination or a negative test are needed to visits bars and restaurants or work in several fields, including healthcare.

Hospitals in Britain are now close to buckling once again under the strain of new admissions. And the country’s early vaccination success risks being undone by a stuttering rollout of booster shots and shots for children.

“Exceptional policies lead to exceptional outcomes,” Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist at Queen Mary University in London, told CNN. “It’s very predictable. This is a consequence of opening everything up.”

“We’re approaching winter, and things are only going to get worse,” she added.

Some things may yet shut back down; Johnson’s spokesperson admitted on Monday that a “challenging” winter lies ahead, and the Prime Minister has refused to rule out a return of mask mandates or stronger restrictions to protect the country’s National Health Service (NHS) in the coming weeks.

But experts — including Johnson’s own health care chiefs — are clamoring for a more urgent change in approach.

The NHS Confederation, which represents providers of the service, urged the government on Wednesday to move to its “Plan B” raft of measures, which would include European-style vaccination passes and more mask mandates. But the government has ruled out that move for now, only insisting it was closely watching the case figures.

“There’s a whole series of ways (in which) we’re out of line with western Europe and the rest of the world,” said Martin McKee, professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

“We’ve seen in other European countries that collective measures make a big difference,” he said. “We should be asking ourselves: Are we right? (Because) there’s no evidence that we are.”

Diners in London after the UK's restrictions were lifted this summer.

A stuttering vaccine rollout

The driver behind Britain’s renewed optimism in the new year was its vaccination program, which outpaced most countries in its initial scale and set the narrative for what Johnson portrayed as Britain’s triumphant emergence from the pandemic.

But the country is struggling to repeat those early successes as it attempts to vaccinate adolescents and roll out booster shots to elderly and at-risk people.

“England’s booster rollout is failing to keep pace with the rollout of first and second vaccine doses,” John Roberts, a consultant at the Covid-19 Actuaries Response group which tracks vaccination figures, warned in a statement on Monday.

More than a month after booster shots began, less than half of twice-vaccinated over-80s have received a top-up. “It’s clear that accelerating the booster rollout is vital to reduce the pressure on health services and minimise Covid-related deaths this autumn and winter,” he said.

The group estimated that, at current pace, the 22 million people that make up the country’s higher-risk groups won’t be triple-vaccinated until late January, despite initial government promises that the program would protect people for the winter.

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Vaccines continue to reduce the number of Covid-19 patients who need hospital treatment, but waning immunity makes the pace of the rollout particularly important. The majority of over-40s in Britain were originally vaccinated with the partially homegrown Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, whose efficacy against the Delta variant has been shown to be lower than Pfizer and Moderna’s shots.

A preprint of a study by Public Health England (PHE) found that the shot’s protection against infection fell from 66.7% to 47% after 20 weeks, compared to a drop from 90% to 70% for the Pfizer vaccine. Separate PHE research found that AstraZeneca’s efficacy against hospitalization from Delta slipped from just above 90% to just under 80% after 140 days, while its efficacy against death remained close to 90%. Pfizer remained above 90% in both metrics.

Many experts blame the lack of momentum in the UK’s vaccination drive on…

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