Besieged U.K. Hospitals Offer a Warning on Lagging Covid Vaccines

U.K. hospitals, swamped with Covid-19 patients even as the country pushes to vaccinate 200,000 people a day, hold a cautionary tale for the rest of Europe.

While the U.K. is way ahead on its vaccine rollout -- having inoculated almost as many people as the rest of Europe combined -- its hospitals are being pushed to their limits by a surge in cases from the new, faster-spreading strain of the disease. On the continent, meanwhile, health officials are worried that the mutation will spread out of the U.K. more rapidly than lagging vaccinations can keep up.

“It’s a variant that completely changes the game for this start of the year,” Arnaud Fontanet, an epidemiologist who sits on the scientific council that advises the French government on Covid, said on RMC radio on Monday. “It’s almost a new epidemic within the epidemic.”

Although the new strain has been spotted in about 31 countries outside the U.K., including Germany and France, the extent to which it is spreading on the continent remains murky. But the rapidity with which it sent cases and deaths soaring in the U.K. and strained the state-run National Health Service is prompting calls for more stringent movement restrictions.

“It’s our biggest concern that numbers don’t explode, that hospitals don’t collapse and that we get infection rates under control,” Annalena Baerbock, a member of the German parliament and co-chairwoman of the opposition Green Party, said on Monday, advocating stricter rules. On Tuesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that Germany faces hard lockdown measures into late March if authorities fail to contain the fast-spreading variant of the virus.

In the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson is banking on accelerated vaccinations, even as he warned of tightened lockdown rules. More than 2.2 million people in the U.K. have received the first shot of a vaccine. That’s over four doses per 100 people, which is more than five times the rate in Germany and nearly 20 times that in France.

Besieged U.K. Hospitals Offer a Warning on Lagging Covid Vaccines

The U.K. has pledged to vaccinate 15 million people by mid-February to shield its most vulnerable residents from the new variant. Even that’s a strategy not guaranteed to succeed, with the NHS already buckling under the strain, daily infections at record levels in recent days and the death toll the highest in Europe.

Meanwhile, much of the rest of the region is far behind on vaccinations, grappling with logistical or supply issues and in some cases vaccine skepticism. That’s raising additional questions about their preparedness for the new strain -- should it hit the continent on a large scale. Intensifying that worry is a pickup in the number of hospitalizations.

Besieged U.K. Hospitals Offer a Warning on Lagging Covid Vaccines

European countries that went into lockdown in November saw hospitalization rates -- and more importantly the number of people in the intensive-care unit -- decline. That applied to the U.K. too, where the number of people in beds with ventilator capacity started dropping in late November.

The trend reversed itself in the U.K. in mid-December, despite stricter rules, as the new strain began to spread. The government’s scientific advisers believe new Covid-19 infections are running above 100,000 a day -- comparable or exceeding the first wave in the spring. ICU beds are rapidly filling up and Johnson said on Monday that oxygen supplies are running short in some areas.

Hospitalizations are now beginning to climb elsewhere as well. In Ireland, with its close ties to the U.K., the number of Covid-19 patients in the hospital has tripled since Jan. 1 to more than 1,500 cases, with about 87% of intensive-care beds occupied.

Besieged U.K. Hospitals Offer a Warning on Lagging Covid Vaccines

In Spain, the number of Covid patients in ICUs has climbed 24% since Dec. 31. Italian ICUs are also seeing more Covid patients, after a drop at the end of last month. In Germany, intensive-care beds had never emptied -- and while hospital admissions are down 8% from a peak at the beginning of the year, officials worry the new strain could quickly refill wards.

“The worst is to be feared,” said the Green Party’s Baerbock.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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