UK’s winter plan: learn to live with Covid

Prime Minister Boris Johnson hopes vaccines for children aged 12 to 15 and boosters for adults will be enough to avert another lockdown

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will warn the UK public that it will have to learn to live with Covid in the long term when he sets out his winter plan to combat the coronavirus.

Mr Johnson is said to be “dead set” on avoiding another lockdown as the country fast approaches the flu season, with millions having returned to schools and workplaces last week.

He is hoping to rely on vaccines and booster shots to avoid another nationwide shutdown that would wreak havoc on the recovering economy.

Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey said on Monday a potential vaccine-passport policy remains on the table and is “part of the toolbox” at ministers’ disposal.

Her comments came after Health Secretary Sajid Javid ditched a plan to introduce vaccine passports for nightclubs and large events in England, saying “we shouldn't be doing things for the sake of it”.

If given the go-ahead from scientific advisers, Mr Johnson will introduce vaccinations for children aged 12 to 15 and offer autumn booster shots to millions of adults.

He also wants to scrap the travel traffic-light system and roll back the rule that requires fully immunised travellers to take PCR tests.

Mr Johnson is expected to announce his winter plan to the public at a press conference on Tuesday and to MPs before the House of Commons rises on Wednesday.

The plan will reportedly say that vaccine passports could become a requirement if the country’s National Health Service is on the cusp of being overwhelmed by Covid patients.

The package will also lay out rules on the wearing of masks in indoor public places. Social distancing may also be reintroduced.

Speaking during a visit to a training academy in Leicester, the prime minister remained tight-lipped about his strategy but urged the 10 per cent of eligible people who have not received a shot to have one.

“Don’t forget that the vast majority of people who are suffering seriously from Covid are unvaccinated,” he said. “Very sadly, people who are still succumbing to Covid, dying from Covid, are the unvaccinated, so please go and get your jab.”

He said: “What we want to do is avoid vaccine passports, if we possibly can.

“That’s the course we’re on but I think you’ve got to be prudent and you’ve got to keep things in reserve in case things change.”

A representative for the government said another lockdown over winter would be considered only as a “last resort”.

Mr Johnson is also reportedly planning to launch a “flu-shot blitz” which would be backed up by a large-scale advertising drive urging people to receive vaccines for both Covid and influenza.

Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour party, has said he would urge people to continue to use “practical measures” such as face masks to prevent the virus from spreading.

He said: “Nobody wants a further lockdown because it has a huge impact on people’s lives and, of course, it impacts the economy and businesses.

“The best way to ensure we don’t have that further lockdown is to go cautiously and to continue with practical measure like masks on public transport and enclosed spaces.

A report published in The Lancet on Monday stated that there may be no need for booster shots as current vaccines are already highly effective at reducing hospital admissions and serious illness.

Many countries around the world have begun giving a third vaccine dose to the general population to protect them from more transmissible variants, such as the Delta strain.

But The Lancet report questioned this strategy and said additional supplies should instead be given to poorer countries with low vaccination rates.

“Taken as a whole, the currently available studies do not provide credible evidence of substantially declining protection against severe disease, which is the primary goal of vaccination,” said lead author Dr Ana-Maria Henao-Restrepo, of the WHO.

“If vaccines are deployed where they would do the most good, they could hasten the end of the pandemic by inhibiting further evolution of variants.”

The report comes after another 29,173 Covid infections were recorded in the UK on Sunday, as were 56 deaths within 28 days of a positive test result.

As of September 12, almost 81 per cent of people in the UK aged 16 and over had been fully vaccinated. Almost 90 per cent have had at least one of two vaccine doses.

A senior government source told The Telegraph newspaper that Mr Johnson would tell the public that “this is the new normal” and “we need to learn to live with Covid”.

The source added: “The vaccines are a wall of defence. The autumn and the winter do offer some uncertainty, but the prime minister is dead set against another lockdown.”

Speaking to Sky News this morning, Ms Coffey said: “When we had a variety of regulations, we said we’d go back to Parliament every six months to see if those regulations were still necessary, but also some of the ideas that we wanted to consider are still part of the toolbox, like vaccine passports.

“Again, we said we were considering bringing these items in but it’s important that we look at exactly what benefits that will bring, and right now the health secretary indicated – although we haven’t made a formal decision – that he does not think it is necessary for the vaccine passports to be introduced by the end of the month.

“But the prime minister will be setting out tomorrow a lot more of the detail of the road map ahead, preparing for winter.”

Prof Neil Ferguson, whose modelling was instrumental to the UK going into lockdown in March last year, said experts were seeing “slow increases in case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths”. He said he was supportive of booster shots.

Prof Ferguson, of Imperial College London and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that in the absence of social distancing measures, which he did agree with, “we are reliant on immunity building up in the population”.

He added: “That happens two ways – one through vaccination and one through people getting infected, and so the faster we can roll out additional vaccination, the better in terms of stopping people getting severely ill but also in reducing transmission.”

Prof Ferguson said the UK had been leading in Europe on the vaccination front until recently, when countries including as Ireland, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal “have got higher vaccination levels than us and that’s largely because they have rolled out vaccination of 12- to 15-year-olds faster than us”.

He said these nations relied heavily on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is “somewhat more effective” against the Delta variant when compared with the AstraZeneca shot.

Prof Ferguson said those EU nations “also vaccinated more recently and we know now that vaccine effectiveness decays over time. We always expected that, and so they have more immunity in the population”.

The Lancet’s editor-in-chief, Richard Horton, said while the UK was steaming ahead on the vaccine front, it has the second-highest number of infections of any country after the US.

He told Sky News: “We’re seeing hospitalisations rise by about 5 per cent every week. There are 1,000 new deaths every single week.

“We’ve got 1,000 people on ventilators across the country. In others words, the pandemic hasn’t gone away yet.

“So, we’re in a very finely balanced situation – great on vaccination but the virus is still out there, it’s still transmitting, and so I hope that in the Covid winter plan, while we celebrate the vaccination schedule, we’re also cautious as we go into winter and, of course, the flu season, which could add insult to injury.”

Updated: September 13th 2021, 3:25 PM
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