LONDON (AP) – Britons these days are encouraged – although not required in most cases – to wear face coverings in crowded indoor spaces. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson regularly appears in the packed, poorly ventilated House of Commons along with other masked Conservative lawmakers.
For critics, that image encompasses the blame in the government’s strategy, which has abandoned most pandemic restrictions and is banking on voluntary restraints and a high vaccination rate to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
As winter approaches, with the threat of a new COVID-19 surge approaching, Britain’s light touch is separating it from more cautious countries.
“The story of this government in the pandemic is too little, too late,” said Laila Moran, an opposition Liberal Democrat lawmaker who heads the all-party parliamentary group on the coronavirus.
She said some UK hospitals are already seeing numbers of virus patients in intensive care units higher than they would normally expect in the depths of winter, although overall daily hospital admissions are about a fifth of January’s peak. running in.
And while cases soared this summer when restrictions were lifted, deaths were nowhere near the same pace. But the winter months, when respiratory illnesses are usually at their highest, can bring an added challenge.
“Unless the government starts doing something different, I don’t think we will be able to avert the worst this winter,” Moran said.
The government argues that its plan is working so far – and it may change course if necessary.
Britain has recorded more than 135,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest toll in Europe after Russia and the same per capita number as the United States. Yet it has also conducted a successful vaccination campaign in which 65% of the entire population has been fully vaccinated.
That relatively high rate prompted Johnson’s government to decide in July that it was safe to end restrictions on business activity and daily life: no social distancing, limit on gatherings or masks required anywhere in England. Businesses can implement their own measures, but otherwise Johnson encourages people to “be prudent.”
Unlike many other European countries – even some with higher vaccination rates than the UK – in England it is not necessary to be vaccinated for eating in restaurants, attending mass events or entering crowded places such as nightclubs. Proof is not required. Scotland, which is part of the UK but sets its own health rules, is becoming more cautious, introducing vaccine passports for nightclubs and mandatory masks indoors.
Pupils and teachers in schools in England are not required to wear face coverings despite objections from unions and public health officials – unlike European countries including France, Italy and Spain, which have placed mask requirements for schools.
While the US has mandated vaccination for millions of workers, Johnson’s government only requires proof of vaccination for nursing home workers, and is considering it for health care workers.
Britain once had some of Europe’s strictest international travel rules, but it is easing quarantine and testing restrictions for many visitors starting next month.
The UK has often gone its own way during the pandemic. To speed up the rollout, health officials gambled on two to three-month intervals between doses, instead of the three to four weeks recommended by vaccine manufacturers. It paid off, since longer intervals with studies suggest at least as effective, and possibly more.
Britain again separated from its peers on the question of vaccination of children. When the US, Canada and most of the European Union extended vaccinations to 12 to 15-year-olds, Britain withdrew, saying the health benefits for children were modest. Then Britain finally decided to vaccinate that age group – but initially with one dose instead of the usual two.
The UK has also overtaken most countries in offering vaccine booster shots, offering a third dose to everyone over 50. This is at odds with the World Health Organization, which has strongly objected to rich countries offering third-round shots in poor countries. They don’t have enough vaccines for the first time. In the US, officials favor booster shots for millions of older or otherwise vulnerable Americans.
Johnson’s government is relying on vaccines to do the heavy lifting against the virus, complemented by voluntary “common sense” behavior.
But after an extraordinarily long and strict lockdown earlier this year, it is unclear whether Britons will freely choose any virus-containment measures they are not forced to take. When restrictions were initially lifted, only two-thirds said they planned to wear masks in shops and on public transport. There has now been a sharp drop in the number of people wearing coverings on the London Underground, which require the use of masks but are hardly enforced.
Critics say the government has failed to learn from experience and appears to be driven by optimism rather than evidence.
Professor Stephen Reicher of the University of St Andrews psychology, who helps advise the government, recalled that a year ago, Johnson’s team was slow to act when scientific advisers took a small step to stop the rapidly rising coronavirus cases. “Circuit-breaker” lockdown was recommended.
“As always if you wait and things get out of control, you have to impose more restrictions, which is why we had a non-Christmas and such a terrible winter and spring” spent in lockdown, he told Sky News told.
Moran, the opposition lawmaker and other critics argue that moderate measures, such as better ventilation in schools and indoor masks, could defy the need for tighter restrictions this winter.
But the government notes that the most pessimistic predictions of scientists, which said cases could rise to 100,000 a day by the time schools reopen in September, have not come true.
Britain now averages about 140 deaths a day – more than a tenth of what it saw at its peak – and 30,000 new infections a day.
Johnson said restrictions such as mandatory masks and work-from-home orders on hospitalization could be reimposed. But he hoped that it would not be needed.
“The result of this vaccination campaign is that we have one of the freest societies and one of the most open economies in Europe,” he said. “And that’s why we stick to our strategy now.”
Standing with him at a news conference, Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance applied the brakes. He said the lesson of the pandemic was that “when you take a step, you have to go earlier than you think you want, you have to go harder than you think.”
“So if it goes in the wrong direction…