The restrictions are gone, but the virus certainly hasn't – and with cases surging in the UK there is fresh concern over a new sub-variant dubbed Delta Plus.
Life has returned to normal for millions in Britain since Covid restrictions were abandoned over the UK summer. But some are now questioning for how long with experts calling for a pandemic Plan B.
Many scientists are now calling on the government to reimpose social restrictions and speed up booster vaccinations as coronavirus infection rates, already Europe’s highest, rise further still.
The UK recorded 49,156 new Covid-19 cases on Monday, the largest number since mid-July. New infections averaged 43,000 a day over the past week, a 15 per cent increase on the week before.
One in 60 people in England had the virus, the Office for National Statistics estimated last week – one of the highest levels seen in Britain during the pandemic.
In July, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government lifted all the legal restrictions that had been imposed more than a year earlier to slow the spread of the virus, including face coverings indoors and social distancing rules. Nightclubs and other crowded venues were allowed to open at full capacity, and people were no longer advised to work from home if they could.
Some modellers feared a big spike in cases after the opening-up. That didn’t occur, but infections remained high, and recently have begun to increase — especially among children, who largely remain unvaccinated.
COVID case numbers among 10-15 year olds continue to be much higher in the least deprived 10% of England than in the most deprived 10%
The peak in older ages presumably reflects infection spreading to parents - on average, older (and therefore more at risk) in less deprived areas pic.twitter.com/s3xCmq9NR6
— Alastair Grant (@AlastairGrant4) October 19, 2021
Concern over Delta sub-variant
Also rising are hospitalisations and deaths, which are averaging more than 100 a day — far lower than when cases were last this high, before much of the population was vaccinated, but still too high, critics of the government say.
"The government needs to take responsibility," Dr Julia Grace Patterson, head of doctor lobbying group Every Doctor UK, tweeted in response to the latest numbers.
Other experts are warning about sub-variants of the Delta coronavirus strain as it continues to mutate in the UK, and whether a new such sub-variant of concern poses more of a threat.
Francois Balloux, director of the University College London Genetics Institute, said the chief sub-variant of note – a mutation known as AY4.2 – might be slightly more transmissible and was being "closely monitored."
However he said evidence suggested "it hasn’t been driving the recent increase in case numbers in the UK."
UK reported its biggest one-day Covid case increase in 3 months just as the new delta variant AY.4 with the S:Y145H mutation in the spike reaches 8% of UK sequenced cases. We need urgent research to figure out if this delta plus is more transmissible, has partial immune evasion?
— Scott Gottlieb, MD (@ScottGottliebMD) October 17, 2021
Sanger released its latest local data on AY.4.2 - the new subtype of Delta substrain AY.4 that UKHSA are monitoring.
It's all still preliminary so DO NOT read too much into this but here is the chart of AY.4.2 growth by region 1/3 pic.twitter.com/ypeWaMf1ne
— Prof. Christina Pagel (@chrischirp) October 18, 2021
Mask adherence low, vaccine passports abandoned in England
Some say Britons have been too quick to return to pre-pandemic behaviour. Masks and social distancing have all but vanished in most settings in England, including schools, though Scotland and other parts of the UK remain a bit more strict. Even in shops, where masks are recommended, and on the London transit network, where they are mandatory, adherence is patchy.
A plan to require proof of vaccination to attend nightclubs, concerts and other mass events in England was dropped by the Conservative government amid opposition from lawmakers, though Scotland introduced a vaccine pass program this month.
Waning vaccine immunity likely playing a part
Some scientists say a bigger factor is waning immunity. Britain’s vaccination program got off to a quick start, with shots given to the elderly and vulnerable beginning in December 2020, and so far almost 80 per cent of eligible people have received two doses. The early start means millions of people have been vaccinated for more than six months, and studies have suggested vaccines’ protection gradually wanes over time.
Millions of people in Britain are being offered booster shots, but critics say the program is moving too slowly, at about 180,000 doses a day. More than half of the people eligible for a booster dose haven’t yet received one.
The UK also waited longer than the US and many European nations to vaccinate children ages 12-15, and only about 15 per cent in that age group in England have had a shot since they became eligible last month.
"It’s critical we accelerate the booster program," said epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.
"Ferguson said one factor influencing the UK’s high case numbers was that it has relied heavily on the AstraZeneca vaccine, “and, while that protects very well against very severe outcomes of Covid, it protects slightly less well than Pfizer against infection and transmission, particularly in the face of the delta variant."
He noted that other countries in western Europe have maintained stricter social settings including vaccine mandates, mask-wearing mandates and have had much lower cases numbers.
"At the end of the day this is a policy decision for government to make," he said.
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