Vaccinated Britain Is About to Face Its Biggest Covid Test Yet
The U.K. looks to be in an enviable place as a third wave of coronavirus infections sweeps across Europe. A rapid vaccine rollout and weeks of lockdown to suppress what the continent refers to as the “English strain” has seen deaths and hospitalizations plummet.
Yet concerns are growing inside the government in London that progress could be undermined by any vaccine-resistant variants and a toxic political row with the European Union over exports that could result in a shortfall of doses.
The jump in infections on Britain’s doorstep could now be the first real global test of whether a pace-setting inoculation program is enough to keep a country protected. It will also give an indication of whether it’s enough to ensure there’s no setback to reopening the economy.
After a steady fall, Covid-19 infections across the U.K. are plateauing nationwide and starting to rise among the under-19s after schools reopened this month. There’s also the prospect of having to prioritize dwindling vaccine supplies on giving people second doses after the U.K. decided to lengthen the gap between shots. That would mean the younger end of the population will remain unvaccinated for longer.
The U.K. has given 43% of the country at least one dose—or more than half the adult population—compared with 9.6% in the European Union, according to Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker. That’s made Britain stand out for positive reasons after recording Europe’s highest death toll from Covid-19 and a series of government missteps.
But the U.K. still finds itself in an “incredibly risky situation,” said Susan Michie, a behavioral scientist who sits on the government’s scientific advisory committee SAGE. “We’ve got a partially vaccinated population with high transmission levels still—which means lots of mutations, variants,” she said. “The more variants, the more likely there are to be variants that undermine the vaccination program.”
The third wave in Europe is driven mainly by the more contagious U.K. strain of the virus, but the South African and Brazilian versions account for up to 40% of all new cases in some regions of France, according to data presented to the U.K. government seen by The Times newspaper.
Any rise in these new strains is highly worrying because it’s not yet clear how resistant they are to vaccines. “When a wave hits our friends,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned on March 22. “I'm afraid it washes up on our shores as well.”
Politically, it’s also a mess. Officials in the U.K. and the EU are in talks over how best to resolve a dispute over sharing vaccines after the bloc toughened restrictions on exports. That followed a temporary suspension of the AstraZeneca Plc vaccine in some countries over concerns about side effects, which has undermined public confidence.
The U.K. government has—in the main—attempted to stay above the fray in public. Johnson has repeatedly said that all countries are “fighting the same pandemic.” The government doesn’t want to lose the “moral high ground,” according to one minister, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But behind closed doors, there are fears in government about what a blockade of vaccines from Europe would mean for Britain—especially because the U.K. is facing a significant reduction in supply in April due to a delayed delivery from India and the re-testing of a separate batch.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Friday that the tensions over AstraZeneca supply was partially due to British vaccination strategy and suggested the U.K. was blackmailing Europe. “One has wanted to massively vaccinate with a first dose and then one finds oneself slightly handicapped for the second dose,” he said. “Europe doesn’t have to pay the price for this policy.”
One senior EU official said the U.K. was “over-committed” because it had rolled out so many first doses without securing supplies for second doses. That means Johnson’s government now badly needs the EU’s help, the official claimed.
The U.K. government says that vaccine supplies remain secure and there is no threat to people getting their second dose within 12 weeks.
Having a broad supply of vaccines is vital to getting people under 50 immunized, keeping cases down and preventing new variants from South Africa and Brazil taking hold in the U.K., said Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick Medical School. He pointed to a surge in the number of younger people being hospitalized in Brazil. “That’s a worry and that’s why I don't think there’s any room for complacency.”
The government, though, is under pressure to reopen the economy and give people some semblance of normality this summer. “If pubs, restaurants, and the wedding industry don’t get back up and running then people are going to lose their jobs and people will lose what brings them joy,” said Steve Baker, a senior parliamentarian in the governing Conservative Party.
Johnson already conceded this week that vacations abroad “look difficult for the time being,” another blow to the travel industry. He will set out plans on travel in early April, but privately those inside government are pessimistic.
One U.K. official warned that if Britons were allowed to go overseas this summer, it would be “madness.” “It’s like: ‘Hello new variants, come on in’,” the person said.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.