With Austria and the Netherlands reintroducing lockdowns in response to spiking coronavirus cases in western Europe, many in the UK will be glancing anxiously across the English Channel, fearing social restrictions could soon be reintroduced in Britain.
The World Health Organisation has said it is “very worried” about the spread of Covid-19 on the continent and warned 700,000 more deaths could be recorded in Europe by March unless urgent action is taken, bringing the total to 2.2 million since the pandemic began.
But since “Freedom Day” on 19 July, Boris Johnson’s government has refused to reinstate mandatory mask orders or social distancing measures, preferring to pass the responsibility for personal safety onto the public and pursue his “Plan A” of promoting vaccine take-up and booster jabs.
More than half of over-50s in England and Scotland have now had their third shot and the health secretary, Sajid Javid, has suggested all over-18s could soon be offered a refresher to counter the waning of the country’s current impressive level of immunity.
This single-minded approach to the crisis is continuing to attract criticism, however, with Kamlesh Khunti, a professor of primary care diabetes and vascular medicine and a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) saying on Wednesday that ministers in England have “lost the message” .
Arguing that messaging has slipped around basic measures such as mask-wearing and avoiding crowded, unventilated spaces – policies that are being actively pushed by England’s closest neighbours like Northern Ireland, where working-from-home orders are back in place - Professor Khunti said politicians needed to take Covid “more seriously”.
“There’s no room for complacency,” added Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick. “Although we’re doing well at the moment, we’re not out of the woods yet. The government needs to keep urging people to get vaccinated and boosted, if eligible, but also to behave cautiously.”
While the vaccines have kept death rates low, the UK’s infection level has remained consistently high, typically hovering around the 40,000-per-day mark and hitting 42,484 on Tuesday.
That said, the Office for National Statistics recorded 1,020 deaths in a week on Tuesday for the first time since March, which is a three per cent rise week-on-week and unquestionably cause for concern.
The prime minister has nevertheless so far refused to bend to some scientists’ calls for the implementation of “Plan B” for fear of jeopardising Britain’s stumbling economic recovery.
He might also be keen to ward off the inevitable anger such a step would provoke, having seen anti-lockdown protests — some of them violent — erupt in Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, Italy and Croatia in recent days.
However, there does appear to be an appetite for new restrictions in some quarters, according to two new polls published this week.
A survey of 900 managers and 1,200 employees carried out by Hack Future Lab found 53 per cent would welcome a “festive lockdown” for the sake of their own well-being after struggling to come to terms with the return to ordinary working conditions, often finding themselves forced to take on extra tasks to cover for absent colleagues.
Another poll by Savanta ComRes revealed 45 per cent of adults would be in favour of a selective lockdown targeting only those who had declined to get their Covid jabs and therefore could pose an ongoing risk to others.
Refusing to concede, the government’s message continues to be that it is keeping a close eye on the data and is ready to act, with a “firebreak” lockdown up its sleeve if needed, but is reluctant to do so unless absolutely necessary - if the number of cases of Covid and winter flu again threaten to overwhelm the NHS, for instance.
Asked about the prospect of a new national lockdown on Sky News last month, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng answered categorically: “I would rule that out.”
And there is a credible case to be made that the UK is in such a strong position it could avoid the worst of the outbreak currently marauding across Europe.
Although the infection rate remains high, it has also been highly stable, lingering at a seven-day average of around 600 daily cases per million people, whereas Austria and the Netherlands have suddenly spiked to 1,500 and 1,250 respectively from well below that starting point since the beginning of October.
Part of the reason for this is that the UK was hit by the more infectious Alpha and Delta variants of the coronavirus sooner and was therefore able to tackle them ahead of its European neighbours and unlock earlier.
That strategy was endorsed by chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance because it meant Britain could take the hit in summer rather than waiting until flu season when more people were socialising indoors in response to plummeting temperatures.
Another key strength, which should continue to play a crucial role, is the level of immunity built up by Britain’s strong vaccine rollout, which began on 8 December 2020 when Coventry grandmother Margaret Keenan, 91, became the first person in the world to receive her jab.
Currently, according to the government’s data, 88.3 per cent of the British population aged over 12 have received their first vaccine injection, 80.3 per cent have received their second dose and 27.2 per cent have had a third.
The robustness of the UK’s immunity was demonstrated last month by projections from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which found that, if everyone in the country were to be exposed to the virus, just 32 people out of 100,000 would end up in hospital, compared with 800 in Romania.
“We may be in the strongest position, but we could still see cases double and that would cause problems,” cautioned the study’s lead author, Dr Lloyd Chapman, in an interview with the BBC.
That cautious outlook is representative of the opinion of many Sage experts, with Professor Whitty telling the CBI Annual Conference this week the UK was still “firmly in Covid” and urging business leaders to help its staff get vaccinated and improve workplace ventilation systems to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and flu.
As always with this pandemic, so much remains unknown and nothing can ever be definitively ruled out.
Many will be haunted by memories of Christmas 2020, when plans had to be changed at the last moment to rein in spiking case numbers, and families were left frustrated, disappointed and unable to see vulnerable loved ones.
While the festive television adverts already being rolled out might be busy encouraging reckless spending and promising a bumper Yuletide to compensate for last year (while stocks last, that is), many would do well to temper their excitement by recalling the haunting words of public health professor Gabriel Scally from last December: “There is no point having a very merry Christmas and then burying friends and relations in January and February.”