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UK falls behind European peers in battle against Covid ahead of winter

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Scientists have urged the UK government to impose fresh coronavirus restrictions in England over winter, as high hospital admission and fatality rates outstrip the rest of western Europe.

The UK’s weekly death rate stands at 12 per million, three times the level of other major European nations, while hospitalisations have risen to eight Covid-related admissions a week per 100,000 people, six times the rate on the continent.

The decision to end compulsory mask-wearing and to pause plans for vaccine passports in England has made the British government an outlier for its management of the pandemic and could account for the worsening trends, according to scientific experts.

By contrast, Western European countries such as France, Italy and, in particular, Spain have brought down infection rates to their lowest level since the summer of 2020.

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Martin McKee, professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the better picture on the continent showed England “should immediately be activating” its winter “Plan B” of work from home orders, vaccine mandates and legally-enforced mask-wearing indoors.

“These small measures like mask-wearing, distancing, ventilation and an emphasis on homeworking are greater than the sum of their parts,” McKee said. “It really doesn’t take an awful lot to bring this down, as France, Italy and others have shown.”

In Spain, which as recently as July endured the highest infection rate in mainland Europe, case rates have come down 17-fold in the past three months to among the lowest in the continent, even as infections in the UK stay stubbornly high.

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In the week ending October 9, more than 1m people were infected with Covid-19 across the UK, the highest level since the end of January, the Office for National Statistics said on Friday.

Professor Ravi Gupta, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), called on the government to “learn lessons” from European countries that were “more cautious in their opening up”.

“We’re just far too reliant on our relatively modest vaccination coverage as our only line of defence,” said Gupta, who added that faster teen vaccination rollouts and more restrictions in classrooms had contributed to other countries’ success in containing an autumn wave.

In Spain and Italy, for instance, obligatory wearing of masks has remained in schools and both countries have been more cautious in reopening nightclubs than England.

Chart showing that far more people in the UK have returned to their pre-pandemic lifestyles than in other Western European countries

In Italy, clubbing restarted last week with strict capacity limits and vaccine certification required for entry, while in Madrid, clubbers must wear masks. Since mid July nightclubs in England have had no restrictions.

A report by a cross-party group of MPs suggested this week the government’s mishandling of the early stages of the pandemic was due in part to British exceptionalism. The same problems continue to blight the UK’s pandemic response, according to EU onlookers.

Philippe Douste-Blazy, a former French health minister, told the Financial Times, Britons’ “sense of individualism” explained the patchy use of masks and the higher level of transmission that resulted from it. “In the UK, the attitude is ‘if I don’t want the mask, I won’t use the mask’,” he added. “In France, we have a very different mentality.”

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José Ramón Arribas, head of the infectious diseases unit at Madrid’s La Paz hospital, concurred. “The difference with the UK is striking because it has a respectable vaccination rate,” he said. Covid-19 patients now only take up 5 per cent of intensive care places in Spain, compared to 15 per cent in England.

About 15 per cent of UK adults now say they never wear a mask in public spaces, according to a YouGov poll from mid-October. The figure compares with below 2 per cent in Spain and Italy, and about 4 per cent in France.

Britons were also less cautious about using public transport, attending large gatherings and entering crowded spaces than their European counterparts, the poll said.

The UK’s greater reliance on the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine could also be a factor in higher infection rates, adding urgency to the need for booster shots, according to Prof Neil Ferguson, a leading epidemiologist at Imperial College London.

“The UK has used a lot more AstraZeneca, which particularly against [the] Delta [variant] is much less effective at blocking infection and reducing transmission than the mRNA vaccines,” he said, “On that functional level of immunity . . . we’re a considerable way behind many western European countries.”

“From that point of view, the booster programme will be invaluable in terms of boosting [protection against symptomatic infection],” he added.

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Ferguson said the latest modelling suggested that if booster uptake was high enough and the rollout was fast enough, additional measures might not be necessary. But he added that if cases continue to rise over the next two weeks, “then clearly I’m sure the government will be re-evaluating the measures in place”.

Boosters have been given to 41 per cent of people in England who received their second dose at least six months ago, compared to 45 per cent in France, 23 per cent in Germany, and 12 per cent in Spain and Italy.

Chart showing that England has fallen behind in the race to vaccinate children, and has given boosters to less than half of those eligible

François Balloux, director of the University College London Genetics Institute, said a high infection rate over autumn could stand the UK in better stead for winter when hospitals are under even greater strain.

“The virus circulating now might actually relieve pressure during the winter because people who are infected . . . won’t be infected again, or at least have a serious illness,” he said.

Despite the ongoing vaccination drive, Ferguson estimated that more immunity was being gained in most age groups by natural infection than from the vaccines.

“Certainly immunity is helpful but I’d prefer to accumulate it through vaccination,” he added. “If we can get immunity up sufficiently to properly start driving down case numbers, we’ll be in a much better place . . . in two months’ time.”

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