The UK has recorded its highest daily coronavirus deaths since March as pressure grows on the prime minister to implement his 'Plan B' for greater Covid restrictions.
The Department of Health on Tuesday said 223 people had died with coronavirus in its hospitals in the past 24 hours, a large jump from the 45 deaths recorded on Monday. On March 9 there were 231 deaths reported.
There is often a lag in reporting over the weekend, but there will be keen focus on the coming days to discover out if the rise is an anomaly, or part of a wider trend.
However, there was an unexpected drop in daily new infections to 43,738, after reaching nearly 50,000 on Monday, the highest level seen in several months. Infections are up 16.1 per cent in a week, while deaths are up 14.6 per cent.
Despite the decrease, the UK continues to have the highest rate of infections in Europe, with new cases averaging 43,000 a day over a seven day period.
The current spike has led to calls from scientists to reimpose tighter coronavirus restrictions and accelerate its vaccine booster drive.
Millions of people in Britain have already been being offered booster shots, but critics say the programme is moving too slowly.
“It’s critical we accelerate the booster programme,” said leading epidemiologist Prof Neil Ferguson, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).
Prof Ferguson said the UK compared unfavourably with its European neighbours, which have been much slower to unwind mask mandates and have stricter vaccine passport requirements.
UK coronavirus cases since September 2020
“Most Western European countries have kept in place more control measures, vaccine mandates, mask-wearing mandates, and tend to have lower case numbers and certainly not case numbers which are going up as fast as we’ve got,” he said.
Mr Ferguson also warned that the UK's reliance on the AstraZeneca vaccine meant that it was more susceptible to the threat of dangerous Covid mutations, such as the Delta variant.
“While [AstraZeneca] protects very well against very severe outcomes of Covid, it protects slightly less well than Pfizer against infection and transmission, particularly in the face of the Delta variant.”
Adam Finn, a professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol, says "the rapid rise" was a "reflection of how people are behaving".
He added that unless there's a "clear message put out that that we've got more infection going on now than at any point in the pandemic", despite fewer hospitalisations, people are "not really going to take precaution".
Scientists have been closely monitoring a new variant of the Delta coronavirus strain, which is thought to account for 10 per cent of all new UK cases.
Sub-variant AY.4.2 could be 10 to 15 per cent more infectious than the original Delta variant that was first detected in India in December and has become the dominant Covid-19 strain.
Decreasing immunity is another major factor in the nationwide increase. Millions of people have been vaccinated for more than six months, and studies have suggested that vaccine protection gradually wanes over time.
The UK also waited longer than the US and many European nations to vaccinate children ages 12-15, and most in that age group have not been vaccinated.
Last month, the prime minister said that England might need to move to a “Plan B”, by reintroducing measures such as mandatory masks and bringing in vaccine passes for public venues.
Boris Johnson’s spokesman Max Blain said “we always knew the next few months would be challenging.” But he said the government was trying to protect “both lives and livelihoods.”
“Clearly we are keeping a very close eye on rising case rates,” he said. “The most important message for the public to understand is the vital importance of the booster programme.”
Despite the rising case rate, Health Secretary Sajid Javid defended continuing some Covid-19 provisions in the face of Conservative backbench concerns, arguing they were “still necessary and proportionate to help with the pressure”.
“I think it is wise especially heading into the winter when we don’t at this stage know just how significant the pressures will be to have that flexibility.”
Cases climbing upwards for months
The UK recorded 49,156 new Covid-19 cases on Monday, the largest number since mid-July.
Last week, the Office for National Statistics estimated that one in 60 people in England had the virus, one of the highest levels seen in Britain during the pandemic.
In July, Mr Johnson’s government lifted all the legal restrictions that had been imposed more than a year earlier to slow the spread of the virus, including face coverings indoors and social distancing rules.
Some had feared a significant spike in cases after the opening up. That did not occur, but infections remained high, and recently have started to increase.
New cases reached 55,000 in July as England opened up, with many blaming the jubilant celebrations during the Euro 2020 football competition for creating a superspreader event.
However, hospital admissions and deaths have averaged more than 100 a day — far lower than at the height of the outbreak.
Some say people in Britain have been too quick to return to pre-pandemic behaviour.
Masks and social distancing are gone in most settings in England, including schools, though other parts of the UK are more strict. Even in shops, where masks are recommended, and on the London transit network, where they are mandatory, adherence is patchy.
A plan to require proof of vaccination to attend nightclubs, concerts and other mass events in England was dropped by the Conservative government amid opposition from lawmakers, although Scotland introduced a vaccine pass programme this month.