LONDON (AP) – The Bars are closed in Viennaand the Christmas market is empty in Munich, as several European nations tighten or even lock in to fight an increase in coronavirus infections.
While in London, couples sip mulled wine at a seasonal market near the Thames, crowds at full capacity fill the seats at the nearby National Theater and friends cuddle over pints at pubs throughout the city.
Not for the first time in pandemic, The UK is out of step with many of its neighbors. But this time it is often different.
Britain has suffered three nationwide deadlocks and registered nearly 145,000 deaths from the coronavirus, the highest number in Europe after Russia. Now it sees how hospitals are struggling with increasing cases in countries including the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, leading to locks and restrictions. But while Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that a “snowstorm from the east” could still ruin Britain’s Christmas, many researchers say the wind is now blowing in the other direction.
“We are not lagging behind Europe in this wave. They are behind us,” said Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia.
The increase that is now affecting mainland Europe, driven by the highly transmissible delta strain of the virus, swept Britain over the summer, just as the government removed all remaining legal restrictions on the economy and daily life.
Because the UK was allowed to participate in the summer, when respiratory viruses were transmitted less easily, “it was not as explosive as we expected it to be in the winter, and as we now see in some European countries,” said Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease modeling at University of Edinburgh, sade.
“I think Britain got its delta wave on a random occasion, while Austria, for example, is the exact opposite,” he said. Austria, where the average daily deaths have almost doubled in the last two weeks, has come to a standstill, and the authorities there plan to prescribe vaccinations from 1 February.
The World Health Organization said this week that Europe is the only region in the world where coronavirus cases are on the rise, and the continent could see another 700,000 deaths in the spring if urgent action is not taken soon.
But Britain is slightly different.
Many researchers predicted that the country would see an increase in cases after July 19 – called “Freedom Day” by the media – when almost all restrictions were lifted. It did not happen.
The infection rates, which were then among the highest in Europe, drifted up and down but never rose again as feared, even though they are still stubbornly high. The UK registers more than 40,000 new cases a day, a level last seen during last winter’s increase. However, a relatively high vaccination rate – especially among the elderly – means that hospitalizations and deaths are much lower than in previous waves. Still, 130 people died a day in the past week after testing positive for covid-19.
UK hospitals have not been overwhelmed by covid-19 cases, although they are extremely busy as the healthcare system struggles to remove a huge backlog built up during the pandemic. Johnson’s Conservative government has so far not had to trigger its “Plan B”, which would reintroduce mask mandates and orders for work from home to ease the pressure on the health system.
But if life in the UK these days can feel unusually normal – even festive, as many embrace the holiday season with renewed enthusiasm – it’s a new, more limited normal.
Visitors from countries where restrictions still apply are sometimes amazed at the UK’s voluntary, varied approach to mask use and social distancing. But Ivo Vlaev, a behavioral scientist at the University of Warwick who has studied data from across Europe, says that people in the UK have largely stuck to protective measures – including limiting their contacts with others – even when they were no longer mandatory by law. Movement data suggest that Britons still travel and mix less than before the pandemic.
“It seems that people in the UK are more compliant in general over all health-protective behaviors” than in some other European countries, “Vaev said.
In part, he says, the reason is “fear – we’re actually quite scared to go out and do the usual things” after Britain’s severe pandemic experience.
While some European countries are turning to coercion to get more people vaccinated, Britain is sticking to persuasion. The UK does not require general proof of vaccination at events or workplaces, and the government has ruled out compulsory vaccination for all, even though health and social workers have been ordered to be shot.
The UK has not seen as much resistance to the vaccine as many other countries, and about 88% of people aged 12 and up have received at least one dose. However, only about 68% of the entire population are fully vaccinated, a lower figure than in some other European countries, partly because the UK was slower than many of its neighbors to offer syringes to children aged 12 to 15, and has not yet approved vaccines for younger children.
The government’s focus is on providing booster doses to those most vulnerable to serious illness, and offering a third shot to all 40 and up six months after their second.
“Get your booster as soon as you can,” the prime minister said this week. “Because it is by vaccinating our country that we have been able to get your staff back to their workplace, to open our theaters, our restaurants and come back further now than any comparison country, to something similar to normal life.”
Some public health specialists and opposition politicians say the government relies too much on vaccination to keep the virus in check. They want back mandatory masks, social distancing and other measures.
But some epidemiologists are cautiously optimistic that enough is being done to keep the virus under control over the winter. Perhaps ironically, Hunter says that Britain’s high coronavirus tariffs put it in a stronger position than the countries where the virus is now on the rise.
“They have populations that are not as well immunized, whether from vaccine or infection, that we have,” he said. “We still have much more immunity to natural infection than most European countries, and we are rolling out the booster. That is why we will have a less difficult winter than most.”
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