LONDON — An increasing number of doctors in the U.K. are warning that the country, and its health service, are facing a renewed health crisis due to rampant Covid-19 infections and a rising number of hospitalizations and deaths.
The warnings, from several big British medical bodies over the last couple of days, come as government officials have insisted that more restrictions on public life are not yet necessary, despite Health Secretary Sajid Javid warning Wednesday that Covid cases could reach 100,000 a day as we enter the winter period.
Making matters potentially even worse, U.K. experts are now monitoring a mutation of the delta variant that could be making the virus even more transmissible.
The British Medical Association slammed the government’s sanguine perspective on the situation, stating Wednesday that it was “incredibly concerning” that Javid was not, as the association viewed it, “willing to take immediate action to save lives and to protect the NHS.”
“Especially as we head into winter, when the NHS is in the grips of tackling the largest backlog of care, with an already depleted and exhausted workforce,” it added in a statement, echoing numerous reports of exhausted frontline health staff.
The BMA backed calls, made earlier this week by the NHS Confederation (which represents organizations across the U.K. health care sector) for the government to trigger its “Plan B,” which it had said last month that it would do if Covid cases threatened to severely impact the health care service’s ability to function.
“The reality today is an unacceptable rate of infections, hospitalisations and deaths, unheard of in similar European nations. In comparison to France, we have more than 10 times the number of cases and almost four times as many deaths per million,” the BMA said.
The U.K. has been recording between 40,000 to 50,000 new daily infections in the last week. While the number of daily deaths and hospitalizations remain far below earlier peaks in the pandemic thanks to Covid vaccines, data shows these numbers are climbing too.
On Thursday, the U.K. reported 52,009 new cases and 115 deaths within 28 days of a positive Covid test. In addition, another 959 people were admitted to hospital, official data shows.
The government has rebuffed concerns over whether the health service can cope. Health Minister Edward Argar told the BBC Thursday that the NHS is not under “unsustainable pressure,” noting that there were about 95,000 beds in NHS hospitals, with 7,000 occupied by Covid patients and 6,000 currently empty.
“We know how those numbers can rise swiftly, which is why we’re looking at that day-by-day, hour-by-hour. But at the moment we do have the ability to manage,” he said.
Other experts beg to differ and say the data could be worse than it appears.
‘The UK really is in trouble’
The U.K.’s Zoe Covid Study, which collects and analyses Covid data with help from King’s College London, estimated Thursday that the number of daily positive tests in the country is much higher than government data suggests. The data suggested there were 81,823 new daily symptomatic cases, on average, based on PCR and LFT (lateral flow test) test data from up to five days ago. That’s an increase of 17% from 69,993 new daily cases last week.
Dr. Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London who runs the study, commented that “with over 80,000 new cases a day the U.K. really is in trouble.”
“This hasn’t happened overnight, but frustratingly our calls for a more cautious approach to Covid management have gone unheeded, despite the upward trends we’ve reported now for several weeks … The U.K. needs to act now to prevent the situation from escalating out of control ahead of winter,” he said.
Experts agree that the U.K. finds itself in this troubling predicament for a variety of reasons, ranging from low usage of masks in crowded spaces (masks are no longer mandatory in the U.K. apart from on public transport) and large gatherings in enclosed spaces, as well as other factors including waning immunity following Covid vaccination (immunity is known to decline after around six months).
There are also growing concerns about a descendent of the delta Covid variant, known now as AY.4.2, that is being identified in an increasing number of U.K. Covid cases. There is a possibility that this mutation could be a possible factor in rising case numbers, although it’s too early to say for sure.
Medical experts also agree that the U.K.’s vaccination program, which got off to a flying start back in Dec. 2020, has stalled. Official data shows 79% of the population aged 12 and over is fully vaccinated.
“There are a number of developments that lie behind the dramatic rise in U.K. infections. Adherence to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as mask wearing has declined; the favorable summer seasonal is fading; and a new sub-lineage of the Delta variant, known as AY.4.2, is increasing modestly,” JPMorgan Chief European Economist David Mackie said in a note Thursday.
“But, in our view, the main issue is the combination of a stalled main vaccination programme, fading vaccine protection and an only modest start to the booster programme.”
The number of fully vaccinated individuals in the U.K. reached 45 million at the start of October, Mackie noted but by Oct.19, 45.4 million people had been fully vaccinated, “representing an average daily pace over the past few weeks of only 27,600. The main vaccination programme has effectively stalled,” he said.
Spector agreed that “the two main reasons we’re seeing cases back at January peaks are the U.K.’s flagging vaccine programme … and lifting most restrictions too early.”
He said the government needed to encourage the unvaccinated to take up shots, and to reintroduce “simple measures, such as wearing masks on public transport and in crowded, poorly-ventilated places, avoiding large indoor gatherings and working from home where possible.”
“Doing nothing now will just make it worse. This pandemic is far from over, and whilst it seems some would rather bury their heads in the sand, Covid-19 and its new variants have other plans.”