Why is the pandemic reviving in the UK?

Johnson turns a blind eye to new covid outbreak as health officials call for restrictions

Quim Aranda
4 min
A carriage on the Victoria Line of the London Underground on October 8. The mask thing is completely anecdotal

LondonIt's the ostrich tactic: bury your head in the sand to ignore what's going on around you. And that is what Boris Johnson's government is doing, once again, in the face of the spectacular growth of covid infections in recent weeks. This rise, according to Daniel Prieto-Alhambre, a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, is caused by "a very large and rapid increase in cases in children aged 12 to 15, who have not been vaccinated". "The children pass the infection on to their parents and relatives, and we're back to square one again."

The situation is becoming so alarming that this Wednesday the body representing the various hospital and healthcare organisations in England, the NHS Confederation, has called for the reintroduction of restrictive measures to combat the pandemic to avoid the risk of a new health crisis like the last winter's, when more than a thousand deaths a day on average were recorded in January.

Matthew Taylor, the body's chief executive, is urging the government to make it compulsory to wear face masks in certain areas, to introduce the covid pass – a measure promised by Johnson for England but abandoned because of a lack of support from his MPs – and more teleworking. "The question," Taylor sayd, "is this: let's act on all the evidence we have, and take the steps we have to take, despite all the inconvenience they cause, to reduce the pressure on the NHS, or we go back into a new crisis". Prieto-Alhambra agrees wholeheartedly. But he reminds us that "sensible and Johnson are almost antonyms" and, therefore, no reasonable behaviour can be expected from Downing Street to deal with the current flare-up. On Tuesday afternoon the government ruled out any backtracking. At least for now.

Mitigating measures

The causes of this new rise are three, also according to Prieto-Alhambra: "Lack of restrictions and mitigating measures of any kind, including masks; [the aforementioned] very late vaccination of teenagers aged 12 to 15, and whether there is any loss of vaccine effectiveness over time in older people, as some say: this country started vaccination earlier and will see the effects earlier than others".

In fact, despite being one of the first countries to start vaccinating, the UK's vaccination rate is no longer among the top ten worldwide. During the first two weeks of October, the proportion of residents aged 12 and over who have received at least one dose has barely changed.

In addition, data seems to indicate vaccine protection does wear off after six months. The data from Israel indicates that, after a surge in contagion, cases have again fallen once the booster shot was given to the elderly.

Is the situation worrying? The latest weekly figures indicate that in the British Isles, especially in England, the increase in hospitalisations and deaths is growing by more than 10% every seven days, although they are still only 20% of those at the beginning of 2021. This Tuesday, for example, the number of infections reached 43,738 and the number of deaths reached 223. On Monday there were almost 50,000 infections, although there were fewer deaths, 45. Last week, however, there were 16.1% more new cases, 14.6% more deaths and 10% more hospitalisations.

A mirror for Catalonia?

Is it possible that the current increase will lead to a wave like last winter's? David King, the government's former chief scientific adviser, told the Evening Standard on Tuesday he believed this was a possibility.

Is there a new, more contagious variant? On this point, alarm is not widespread. Andrew Pollard, the head of the team that developed the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, told the Today programme: "The discovery of new variants is, of course, important, but there is nothing to suggest that this new mutation will be the next one to replace delta. And, even if it does, delta is very good at spreading in a vaccinated population. And a new one might be a little bit better, but it's unlikely to change the overall situation dramatically."

Does Catalonia need to take note, especially given the increase in the reproduction rate, already above 1, as was confirmed this Wednesday? Professor and researcher Salvador Macip, from the University of Leicester, offers a reflection that is as interesting as it is obvious: "What is happening in the UK is that you can't act as if there were no pandemic", which is exactly what Boris Johnson decided to do on the famous "freedom day", on July 19. "There are now 20 times more cases in the UK than in Spain. Even if mortality is low, there will also be 20 times more! It's the same with hospital admissions. There is always a percentage of unvaccinated and vaccinated people who are not protected, even if it is low. The more people are infected, the more the absolute number of people affected rises. We are still in the middle of the wave in the UK, with as many cases as earlier in the summer, but the mortality will remain relatively low compared to last year because the vaccines are working.

Vaccine protection

The positive effects of vaccination are further evidence. This is confirmed by the available data. Between July and October this year, there have been just over three million cases and some 79,000 people have ended up in hospital. From October 2020 to January 2021 there were just over 2.7 million cases, but more than 185,000 sick people needed hospital treatment.

So, is another lockdown possible in the UK? Even epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, one of the first scientists to warn of the seriousness of the situation in China, and who forced Boris Johnson's change of heart in March 2020 to end up decreeing a national lockdown, says no. The best thing to do is to be cautious, he says. The best thing is to be prudent, Macip reminds us. In Catalonia and Spain, where the situation is, for the moment, under control, "the danger is that now there is the same attitude as in the United Kingdom and they pretend that the pandemic is over, because the cases will rise". More clear water: Macip recalls that the pandemic is still very much alive.