Covid-19 infections appear under control but UK is not out the woods

State of play at the year end will be a reckoning for one of the worst-hit countries

Rising Covid-19 cases in a third of local areas in the UK is one blip on the UK's attempts to return to normality but experts are warning that key tests must be met to avoid lockdown restrictions before the end of the year.

Under his plan to tackle Covid over the coming months, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pressed forward with plans to resume normal working patterns, even as the latest government data shows that 36 per cent of UK local areas – 137 from a total of 377 – have seen a week-on-week rise.

The figures, for the seven days to September 19, are based on the number of positive Covid tests from either a lab or rapid lateral flow test, by specimen date.

The rate, which is expressed as the number of new cases per 100,000 people, shows 63 per cent of local authorities have seen a week-on-week fall in cases.

The UK government is refusing to rule out further lockdowns this winter to prevent the National Health Service from becoming overwhelmed by Covid patients, but a neuroscience expert has suggested more restrictions are unlikely.

Under Mr Johnson’s plan, more restrictions will only be implemented “as a last resort”.

Karl Friston, professor of imaging neuroscience at University College London, told The National he is optimistic about the country’s chances of getting through the colder months without major disruption.

Based on the latest Covid numbers and past trends, Prof Friston believes a lockdown-free winter is on the cards for Britons.

However, he warned of “problems around Christmas”, caused by flu.

“I have often been accused of being too optimistic in the past, but according to the model that is absolutely what it suggests,” he said.

“I would say it would be highly unlikely that we will return to lockdown,” said Prof Friston.

“There will be other protective measures that will be required.

“There will not just be health measures but … a more nuanced response.

“My feeling is that there will be problems around Christmas but they won’t be determined by Covid,” he said.

Prof Friston predicted a massive resurgence of the flu and warned the NHS could be hit by further backlogs in patient numbers as a knock-on effect of the pandemic.

A panellist on the Independent Sage group of scientists, Prof Friston said one reason the UK did not see a huge surge in cases this month when schools reopened was due to herd immunity.

Some scientists had warned the number of cases would soar when millions of pupils returned to classrooms and workers headed back to workplaces – some returning to offices for the first time since March 2020.

However, the expected rises predicted by the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, which advises the government, failed to materialise

Prof Friston suggested the cautious approach being adopted by many Britons – even after they have been vaccinated – played a part, saying the absence of a surge was “likely down to our personal mitigating behaviours”.

“The reason they’re not surging is down to the herd immunity that’s been achieved by our vaccination programme in the UK and in other countries and that has been supplemented by natural infection,” he said.

“If you exclude herd immunity … it explains why there was not an exponential surge in infections when people when back to work.”

Prof Friston said the UK appears to have “now passed herd immunity” and as a result any increase in contact rates could drive up infection numbers while decreased contact could suppress the virus even further.

He said people’s “personal mitigating behaviours are very much in place, irrespective of the legislation”.

“It looks as if as a population we are still behaving in a cautious way,” he said.

He predicted that by mid-December the UK population will be on track to revert to 95 per cent of their pre-pandemic way of life.

Under Mr Johnson’s winter plan, the vaccination programme will be the country’s “first line of defence” against the virus.

Mr Johnson said the programme meant the UK could remain “one of the most free societies” in Europe with only limited restrictions to keep the disease in check.

His plan also includes a vigorous booster jab campaign for all over 50s to maintain protection levels.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said more efforts will be made to persuade the six million adults in the UK who have not yet been inoculated to come forward.

If cases rise significantly and the NHS threatens to buckle under the strain of hospital admissions, the government will move to more aggressive measures to tackle the crisis.

Face masks would once again become mandatory in indoor public settings and a new campaign would be rolled out to tell the public “clearly and urgently” about the increased risks.

The plan would also see vaccine passports introduced for large gatherings.

Anyone without a vaccine would have to prove they had tested negatively for the coronavirus in order to gain entry to venues.

Updated: September 25th 2021, 11:00 AM