Facing rising COVID cases, UK government resists calls for new restrictions ahead

Doctors and scientists have described the government as 'willfully negligent.'

October 23, 2021, 12:46 PM

LONDON -- Flanked by public health officials, the U.K. Health Secretary painted a bleak picture of the current state of the pandemic in Britain.

"Cases are rising," Sajid Javid, told the nation this week. "And they could go yet as high as 100,000 a day. We're also seeing greater pressure on the NHS (National Health Service) across the U.K. We're now approaching 1,000 hospitalizations per day."

Yet, despite growing calls from doctors' associations and scientists across the U.K. -- Javid resisted calls to introduce mandated prevention measures, such as mask wearing, which were dropped in England in July.

PHOTO: A pedestrian wears a facemask as he walks along Westminster Bridge in London,  Oct. 20, 2021.
A pedestrian wears a facemask as he walks along Westminster Bridge in London, Oct. 20, 2021.
Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

On Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson doubled down on that message, stressing the way forward was for as many eligible people as possible to take booster jabs, a rollout that experts warned is lagging behind demand.

Cases climbing, vaccines waning

Since July, when virtually all social distancing restrictions were relaxed in England, cases and hospitalizations have steadily increased, though at a rate far lower than previous waves of infections when the population did not have access to vaccines.

This week, the U.K. posted a worrying set of figures.

On Tuesday, the government recorded 223 COVID deaths, the highest since March.

The last time the country recorded less than 20,000 daily cases was July -- and this week the latest weekly average stands at over 47,000 daily cases. Deaths, hospitalizations and cases are increasing week over week.

Just under 80% of the population over age 12 have received two doses of coronavirus vaccine, but the evidence suggests that the effectiveness wanes over time, and the U.K. has been slower to vaccinate children than other countries. Rising cases have been linked to the resumption of the school year, where children are not formally required to wear masks and self-isolation rules around COVID-positive schoolchildren have been relaxed.

A nurse draws a syringe before administering a COVID-19 vaccine booster at Birkenhead Medical Building in Birkenhead, England, Oct. 23, 2021.
Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images

The booster program, which Israeli officials credit as proving crucial in Israel's success in getting infections under control this summer, has not been as effective as the first wave of vaccinations, he said. An estimated 5 million people have taken their boosters, but around half of all people eligible are yet to take up the call for a third shot of vaccine, according to a report in the Financial Times.

"The vaccine program has really fallen flat," according to Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist and the lead investigator of the ZOE Covid Symptom app, which tracks coronavirus infections in the U.K "It's peaked at around 66%, 67% [across the total population] and is hardly moving. And we know now we didn't know then that that's not enough. And I think we're very much back to where we were in March 2020, in some ways."

U.K. government data still shows that the mortality and hospitalization rates among unvaccinated people are still far higher than the vaccinated.

According to reports in the British media, the government does have a 'Plan B' over the winter, which would include reintroducing working from home, mask mandates and potential vaccine passports in nightclubs. "It remains the case we would only look to use that if the pressure on the NHS was looking to become unsustainable," the prime minister's spokesperson said in a statement to ABC News this week.

This week, the British Medical Association, a doctors' trade union, described the government's approach as "willfully negligent," while the NHS Confederation has called for new measures to avoid "stumbling into winter crisis."

Yet Prime Minister Johnson has held out so far against mandating restrictions, and has instead placed greater emphasis on vaccine boosters and the procurement of antiviral drugs. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different rules than England, with Scotland, for example, mandating mask use and vaccine passports for nightclubs -- policies that are part of Johnson's yet-to-be-implemented 'Plan B.' Health Secretary Javid, while acknowledging there was significant pressure on the National Health Service, said the level was not yet "unsustainable."

Complacency due to the success of the early vaccine rollout, as well as poor public health messaging, has contributed to the recent rise in cases, according to Spector.

"There's been a total absence of public education, no reiteration of [changes in] symptoms [with the delta variant], no ideas about how to stop spreading it in schools," he said. "You know, there's no prevention. There's no concept of prevention."

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson watches as Nitza Sarner, 88, receives a Pfizer booster vaccination during a visit to the COVID-19 vaccine centre, Oct. 22, 2021, in London.
Matt Dunham/PA Wire via ZUMA Press

In mid-July, polling from the Office of National Statistics reported that 63% of adults always or often maintained social distancing, but the same body reported that only 39% of adults were doing so in mid-October.

Health service under winter pressure

In terms of infections, the U.K. is now far outpacing other countries in Western and Central Europe. In its weekly epidemiological update, the World Health Organization reported that Europe is the only region where coronavirus infections are rising, by 7% over the past seven days, driven by infection rates in the U.K., Russia and Turkey.

Despite the growing concern, the health service is not yet overwhelmed by an influx of coronavirus patients.

"No, we're not there, we're not there yet," Spector said. "But the point is that everyone scientifically, medically, is seeing these curves going up and inevitably these things get worse as you hit winter, and you hit other respiratory infections."

According to the government's latest seven-day average, 937 patients per day were hospitalized with COVID, with just over 8,000 currently receiving treatment. In January, meanwhile, prior to the vaccine rollout, daily hospitalizations peaked at over 4,000, while the highest number of patients in hospital reached over 39,000.

Instead, doctors and scientists are warning that with infections rising, there is potential for COVID to add to the winter burdens of an already stretched health service that has faced pressures even in pre-pandemic times.

A COVID-19 PCR test centre in London, Oct. 21, 2021.
Andy Rain/EPA via Shutterstock

"This time it genuinely does feel different," Siva Anandaciva, the chief analyst at the King's Fund, an independent health think tank, told ABC News. "I think that's because there are a lot of familiar pressures that you always have ... you've got the steady ticking up of winter viruses."

Part of the pressure, he said, is the resumption of ordinary care for the massive backlog of patients waiting to be seen in hospitals, that has built up since the pandemic began. 5.7 million people in the U.K., almost 10% of the population, are on waiting lists for planned routine care, and in a worst case scenario this number could rise up to 14 million, Anandaciva said.

"COVID's almost like an accelerant on a fire," he said. "The NHS has always struggled over the winter, and these are pressures that are spread more wildly... It is a problem with COVID, but more fundamentally some of the demand for care coming back after a pause in services and also crucially some of the resourcing issues that have long plagued the NHS. Not having enough staff, not having enough resources."

Facing pressure this winter, the government has announced new funding for the NHS, but it could be years before the health service begins to function at pre-pandemic levels, according to Anandaciva.

Spector was once critical of the government's approach for "underreacting, then overreacting" to the pandemic with successive lockdowns, but now says he now doesn't understand some of the inaction.

"It's complacency to think that this, you know, this isn't going to get worse," he said. "I haven't heard of anyone who says it's going to get better next week. So that's why I can't understand why introducing some simple measures that don't cost the economy anything, only have a political cost can't be implemented."