Last Thursday, three months after the U.K. celebrated Freedom Day and ended COVID-19 restrictions, the country recorded more than 50,000 infections — the highest number of daily cases since mid-July. Weeks from the onset of winter, infection and hospitalization rates are more than six times higher than other large nations in Europe, while the death rate is three times greater. The U.K.’s health minister warned this week that, lacking fast action to curb the spread of the virus, cases could climb as high as 100,000 a day heading into the winter.
Below is a look at the factors that may be contributing to the surge.
Prematurely Lifting COVID-19 Restrictions
Virtually all of the nation’s restrictions were lifted in July thanks to the progress in its vaccine rollout, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged Britons to “begin to learn to live with this virus.” Now, Johnson has admitted that the level of COVID-19 cases is “high” and he is “watching the numbers very carefully every day.” However, he has insisted he is “sticking with our plan.”
Meanwhile, health experts are pressing the British government to reimpose those social restrictions — such as wearing masks in crowded indoor spaces — as cases rise and hospitals fill. On Wednesday, the NHS Confederation, which represents organizations in the country’s health service, urged the government to move to its “Plan B” raft of measures, which include the use of vaccine passports and mandatory face masks in crowded and enclosed spaces. So far, the government has ruled out the move.
“The relaxation [of rules] that happened over summer was a fairly drastic month going from, you know, quite, quite tight measures to very few restrictions,” Ravi Gupta of the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease told NBC News. “And I think that, in retrospect, a more graded approach may have prevented the surge that we’re seeing.”
Waning Immunity and Vaccine Efficacy
There’s been concern that protection from catching the virus wanes over time. The U.K. started its vaccination campaign in December of last year, before many other countries, suggesting they’ll be one of the first to see a drop in vaccine-based immunity. The country also largely relied on the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has been found to protect slightly less well against infection and transmission than available mRNA vaccines.
On Saturday, Johnson issued a desperate call to arms for everyone over 50 to have a booster jab when offered one. “We’ve made phenomenal progress but our job isn’t finished yet, and we know that vaccine protection can drop after six months,” he said. “To keep yourself, your loved ones, and everyone around you safe, please get your booster when you get the call.”
Slow Booster Rollout
Britain lifted most COVID restrictions thanks to the progress in its vaccine rollout. Initially, it outpaced most countries in vaccinations and set the narrative for Johnson’s Freedom Day. But the country is struggling to repeat those early successes, namely in its efforts to get teens vaccinated 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 last Monday. “It’s clear that accelerating the booster rollout is vital to reduce the pressure on health services and minimize COVID-related deaths this autumn and winter,” he added.
More than a month after the booster rollout began, fewer than half of fully vaccinated Britons over 80 years old have received their third shot. At the current pace, the 22 million people that make up the country’s higher-risk groups won’t have received boosters until late January, despite initial government promises that the people would have that additional layer of protection by winter.
Spread of the Delta Plus variant
The resurgence of COVID-19 cases comes as a new Delta Plus variant – formally known as AY.4.2 — accounts for nearly 8 percent of recently sequenced cases in the U.K. Preliminary evidence suggests that this variant could be up to 15 percent more transmissible than the original Delta strain, which remains by far the most dominant variant in terms of global circulation. Last week, the U.K. government elevated Delta Plus to a “variant under investigation.”
The U.K. prime minister’s spokesman told Sky News that “[AY.4.2] is something we’re keeping a very close eye on,” while adding that there was no evidence that the strain could more easily spread. “There’s no evidence for that, but as you would expect, we’re monitoring it closely and won’t hesitate to take action if necessary,” he added.
Outside of the U.K., there have been few cases of the Delta Plus variant. Still, former U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb tweeted on Sunday that “urgent research” was needed to determine if the new variant was more transmissible and better at evading immune defenses. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in an interview on Sunday that the agency is watching the Delta Plus variant “very carefully.”