As virus cases rise in Europe, the UK continues its new normal

As virus cases rise in Europe, the UK continues its new normal

London Bars are closed in Vienna, and the Christmas market is empty in Munich, as many European countries have tightened or even closed measures to combat the rise in coronavirus cases.

Meanwhile in London, couples sip wine at a seasonal market near the River Thames, a full-capacity audience fills seats at the nearby National Theatre, and friends gather around pints at pubs around the city.

This is not the first time in the shadow of the pandemic, Britain is not keeping pace with many of its neighbours. But this time, I’m happy to be different.

The UK has suffered three nationwide lockdowns and recorded nearly 145,000 deaths from the coronavirus, the highest toll in Europe after Russia. Now, watching hospitals struggle as cases rise in countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, leading to lockdowns and restrictions. But while Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that a “blizzard from the east” could destroy Christmas in Britain, many scientists say the winds are now blowing in the other direction.


We are not behind Europe in this wave. “They’re behind us,” said Paul Hunter, MD, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia.

The boom now hitting mainland Europe, spurred by a highly contagious Delta strain of the virus, hit Britain in the summer, just as the government removed all remaining legal restrictions on the economy and daily life.

Because Britain hit the Delta in the summer, when respiratory viruses were less easily transmissible, “they weren’t as highly explosive as we would expect them to be in the winter, and as we’re seeing now in some European countries,” Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease modeling at the University of Edinburgh, said.

“I think the UK got a delta wave at a good time,” he said, “while Austria, for example, was just the opposite.” Austria is on lockdown, where the average daily death rate has nearly doubled in the past two weeks, and authorities there are planning to enforce vaccinations starting on February 1.


The World Health Organization said this week that Europe is the only region in the world where coronavirus cases are rising, and the continent could see another 700,000 deaths by spring unless urgent action is taken soon.

But Britain stands somewhat separate.

Many scholars predicted that the country would see a spike in cases after July 19 – dubbed “Freedom Day” by the media – when nearly all restrictions were lifted. It did not.

Infection rates, which at the time were among the highest in Europe, went up and down but did not rise again as feared, although they are still stubbornly high. Britain is recording more than 40,000 new cases per day, a level last seen during last winter’s wave. But the relatively high vaccination rate – especially among the elderly – means that hospitalizations and deaths are much lower than in previous waves. However, 130 people per day died in the past week after testing positive for COVID-19.


British hospitals have not been overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases, although they are very busy as the health system struggles to remove the huge backlog that has built up during the pandemic. Johnson’s Conservative government has not yet had to launch “Plan B,” which would reimpose mask mandates and work-from-home orders to ease pressure on the health system.

But if life in Britain these days seems extraordinarily normal – even festive, with many embracing the festive season with renewed enthusiasm – it is a new, more restrained normal.

Visitors are sometimes surprised by countries that still impose restrictions on Britain’s voluntary and changing approach to the use of masks and social distancing. But Ivo Flaive, a behavioral scientist at the University of Warwick who has studied data from across Europe, says people in the UK have largely adhered to preventative measures – including limiting their contact with others – even when they are no longer required by law. Movement data suggests Britons are still traveling and socializing less than before the pandemic.


“It appears to be the case that people in the UK are generally more compliant with all health-protective behaviours” than in some other European countries, Fife said.

He says it’s partly because of “fear – we’re actually afraid to go out and do the usual things” after experiencing the pandemic in Britain.

While some European countries are turning to coercion to vaccinate more people, the UK is sticking to persuasion. Britain does not widely require proof of attendance at vaccinations or workplaces, and the government has ruled out vaccinations for everyone, despite orders for health and social care workers to get vaccinated.

Britain has not experienced as much resistance to the vaccine as many other countries, and about 88% of people aged 12 years and over have taken at least one dose. But only about 68% of the population have been fully vaccinated, a number lower than in some other European countries, in part because the UK has been slower than many of its neighbors to introduce vaccinations to children aged 12-15, It has not yet approved vaccines for younger children.


The government’s focus is to give booster doses to those most at risk of critical illness, and to offer a third dose to everyone aged 40 and over six months after the second.

“Get the booster ASAP,” the prime minister said this week. “Because by vaccinating our country, we have been able to get your employees back to their workplaces, open our theaters and restaurants and back now longer than in any comparable country, to something like a normal life.”

Some public health professionals and opposition politicians say the government is relying too much on vaccination to ward off the virus. They want mandatory masks, social distancing and other measures back.

But some epidemiologists are cautiously optimistic that enough is being done to control the virus during the winter. Perhaps ironically, Hunter says Britain’s heavy toll from the coronavirus puts it in a stronger position than those countries where the virus is now spreading.


“They have populations that are not well immunized, whether it’s from a vaccine or infection, as we have,” he said. “We still have a lot more immunity to natural infection than most European countries, and we are rolling out the booster. That is why winter will be less annoying than most of us.”


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