The U.K.’s Next Covid Challenge Could Be Complacency
The danger of success is that it can breed complacency, and some British officials are getting concerned.
With the speed of the U.K.’s inoculation program—which has seen 34% of the adult population receiving at least one shot compared with 7% in the European Union—there are indications that the public may be giving up on lockdown. Coupled with dates for the reopening of the economy, that potentially risks another spike in the disease, some medics warn.
For Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, getting its handling of the pandemic right this time is a chance at redemption after the country recorded Europe’s highest death toll. The challenge is to ensure metrics that now stand out for the right reasons don’t then translate into the U.K.’s undoing.
Data published on Friday showed that the proportion of people who stayed home or only left for work, exercise or essential supplies has dropped to 48% from 65% less than two months ago. Even among the over-80s—those most at risk of dying from Covid-19—breaking the rules within three weeks of receiving an injection is not uncommon.
Parks in London, once the epicenter of the worst outbreak, are full of people playing soccer at weekends. Shopping streets are getting busier, even with non-essential stores closed, and more people are heading out.
“The last thing we want now is for rates, deaths and hospitalizations to go back up,” said Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England. “We are still in a precarious situation and it would not take much for a dangerous new wave to take off.”
Public Health England data show case rates fell in every region of the country and in all age groups during the first week of March.
Officials say that proves the vaccines—and restrictions including tougher border controls—are working. The U.K. estimated on Friday its Covid-19 reproduction number is 0.6 to 0.8. That upper level is the lowest since the country started recording it in May last year and a figure below 1 suggests the pandemic is shrinking.
But there are signs across the Channel the pandemic remains potent. Germany is warning of a third wave and the Italian government is putting much of the country back into lockdown.
The U.K. government has been slammed repeatedly for its mishandling of the pandemic over the past year. A parliamentary inquiry found the national test and tracing program had failed to prove itself effective, despite the “unimaginable” 22 billion-pound ($30.6 billion) initial planned cost.
The testing and tracing of contacts is seen as vital to the country’s long term prospects of keeping control over the disease. Yet despite the money spent, the regime could not prevent a second or even a third national lockdown.
That may be partly due to other policies, too. Last summer, the government paid for discounts to encourage people to eat out in restaurants in an effort to boost the economy.
After the virus surged back, Johnson this time wants a cautious easing of restrictions rather than gambling on a big bang. On Feb. 22 he set out a roadmap for lifting the lockdown in stages over the following four months.
On March 8, schools went back in England and more children in Scotland are due to return on Monday. But there’s growing evidence that the public has lost patience with waiting. Inside Johnson’s own Conservative Party, there is constant pressure from rank and file members of parliament to unlock faster.
The lockdown “stay at home” order is still in place. But traffic on U.K. roads was at 77% of pre-pandemic levels on Monday, March 8, higher than mid-January, when it was 63%, Department for Transport figures show. Public transit use is also up slightly and more Londoners are on the move in the capital now than two months ago.
Despite the closure of non-essential stores, more people are out shopping than at the start of the third lockdown. Data from research firm Springboard showed that footfall in retail parks was down 45% in the week beginning Jan. 11 compared to a year earlier, but only down 30% by the week of March 1.
“This is a blend of lockdown fatigue and therefore pent up demand to visit bricks and mortar retail destinations and stores, undoubtedly fueled by increased confidence due to the success of the vaccine program,” said Diane Wehrle, insights director at Springboard. “It reinforces our forecast for the uplift in footfall when retail reopens on April 12.”
That bodes well for the economic recovery. A report on Friday showed gross domestic product fell 2.9% in January, much smaller than the 4.9% contraction that economists had forecast, because of gains in construction and health and social work activity. The economy is 9% smaller than it was in February 2020 before the pandemic struck.
But for Mike Tildesley, an academic at the University of Warwick who advises Johnson’s government on pandemic modeling, one major risk is that vaccinated elderly people think they’re invincible.
The U.K. has focused on giving as many people as possible one dose, while the proportion of people considered “fully vaccinated” is 2% compared with 3% in the EU, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.
“If people start dropping their adherence, with the promise of the vaccine doing really well and that they themselves have been vaccinated, that potentially jeopardizes the progress we’ve made,” Tildesley said. “We need really clear messaging that social distancing measures apply to all of us, regardless of whether we’ve been vaccinated or not.”
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