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

London, United Kingdom – Pressure is mounting on the United Kingdom’s government to re-enforce COVID-19 restrictions as infections surge, with 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 that cases have topped the 40,000 mark.

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

Alarmed by the situation, senior healthcare figures are publicly urging British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to tackle transmission rates by making face masks mandatory, advising people to work from home and raising awareness about the benefits of ventilated public spaces.

Under a current “Plan A” to manage the pandemic in autumn and winter, officials are focused on third-shot booster vaccinations to millions of people and offering those aged 12-17 a single dose of the vaccine produced by Pfizer-BioNTech.

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

Without immediate intervention, experts say more will needlessly die and the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) risks becoming overwhelmed.

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

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

“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 programme.”

While the UK raced ahead of other nations in the initial stages of its immunisation drive, many comparable countries in Western Europe have since caught up with and even surpassed its vaccine coverage [File: Carl Recine/Reuters]

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

Since removing almost all restrictions in England in mid-July – on a day Johnson dubbed “Freedom Day” – officials have pinned hopes on the national vaccination programme and natural immunity built up among the UK’s nearly 70 million-strong population 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 likely to come under “unsustainable pressure”.

What is ‘Plan B’?

Under “Plan B”, face masks in some settings 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 some venues or attend mass events.

On Wednesday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the government would not switch to its contingency plan “at this point”, but as he cautioned that cases could soon rise to 100,000 a day, he warned that slow vaccine uptake would increase the likelihood of restrictions.

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

“It is wilfully negligent of the Westminster government not to be taking any further action to reduce the spread of infection, such as mandatory mask wearing, physical distancing and ventilation requirements in high-risk settings, particularly indoor crowded spaces,” Nagpaul said in a statement on Wednesday.

“These are measures that are the norm in many other nations,” he added, describing the UK as an “international outlier” on pandemic control.

Critics have decried the UK throughout the pandemic, suggesting it was slow to lockdown during the first and second waves in 2020 and then too quick in lifting restrictions this year.

“We are rapidly approaching a position where, yet again, the government is delaying for too long, and equivocating over taking action. This is the time to learn the lessons of the past and act fast, or else we will face far more extreme measures later,” Nagpaul said.

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

‘Clutching defeat from the jaws of victory’

Elsewhere in Western Europe, mask wearing is mandatory and vaccine certificates are in use. In these countries, such as France, Italy and Spain, infection rates, hospitalisations and deaths are lower than in the UK.

Christina Pagel, a SAGE member and director of the Clinical Operational Research Unit at University College London, said the disparity demonstrates the UK’s overreliance on vaccines.

About 86 percent of people aged 12 and above have received a first dose of vaccine, while 79 percent have been fully vaccinated with two doses.

“Vaccines alone will not be able to control this pandemic unless you get to a stage where well over 90 per cent of the population are protected,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Relatively small changes in behaviour could bring cases down quite quickly,” she said, suggesting mandatory mask wearing in settings such as classrooms, an increased emphasis on ventilation in public spaces and the use of vaccine passports.

“We need the extra stuff, at least until we get to a situation where we have vaccinated enough people,” she said. “We’ve seen that in other European countries, where they didn’t rely entirely on their vaccine programme, that they have had much better control over COVID and are now going into winter with far lower rates.”

The UK raced ahead during the early stages of its immunisation drive but comparable Western European countries have since caught up with and surpassed its vaccine coverage.

Britain’s efforts are now plagued by a sluggish campaign to deliver booster shots to those aged above 50, as well as lower vaccine uptake among young adults and teenagers, just as students get back into schools and universities.

Waning immunity among those who were jabbed early on and the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant have also contributed to the current crisis.

“The UK response has been a matter of clutching defeat from the jaws 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 bleak indeed.”

Altmann conceded the UK may need to “learn to live with COVID-19” given the unlikelihood of now eliminating the virus altogether, but warned that should not mean giving up on efforts to contain it.

“We seem to be using the term rather as a synonym for ‘learn to tolerate a truly tragic level of wholly avoidable deaths since we can’t be bothered with simple mitigations’,” he said. “That’s not how one should practice medicine.”

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

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