By Alistair Smout
LONDON -British hospitals are on the edge and people should wear masks and come forward for vaccines to stop them being overwhelmed by a rising wave of COVID-19 cases, senior medical figures said on Wednesday, as the government resisted calls for new measures.
Britain has the eighth biggest death toll globally from COVID-19, with nearly 139,000 fatalities. But it also had a quick start to its vaccine programme and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has lifted almost all COVID-19 restrictions in England, ending social distancing measures and mask mandates.
Johnson’s government has said that it is relying on vaccinations, including booster shots for the vulnerable, to avoid lockdowns during a bumpy winter, having previously shut down the economy three times.
But the vaccine rollout has stalled, slipping behind several other European countries, while a booster programme is off to a slow start.
“COVID-19 cases are rising and winter is drawing closer. If you have not been vaccinated, now is the time. If you are offered a booster please take up the offer,” Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said.
“Ventilation, masks in crowded indoor spaces and hand washing remain important.”
Doctors have expressed concern that an increase in numbers going into hospital, combined with pressures on the NHS from seasonal viruses, could leave hospitals unable to deal with long waiting lists and function normally.
Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation, called for measures that Johnson is holding in reserve such as mask-wearing and working from home.
“I talk to health leaders every day, and I have literally not spoken to any leader who doesn’t say that their service is under intense pressure now. This is the middle of October. Things are only going to get worse,” Taylor told BBC radio.
“The health service is right at the edge… if you push much further we will not be able to provide the level of service that people need to have.”
IMMUNITYMAY BE WANING
Business minister Kwasi Kwarteng said another lockdown would be wrong and also played down the prospect that more limited measures would be brought in soon.
“Ministers, scientists, experts are looking at data on an hourly basis,” he told the BBC. “And we don’t feel that it’s the time for Plan B right now.”
A parliamentary report into Britain’s response in the early stages of the pandemic said last week that delaying a lockdown and other failures had caused thousands of avoidable deaths.
Britain reported 223 new deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday, the highest daily figure since March, and cases are the highest in Europe.
Britain’s quick start with vaccines also mean that immunity could be waning in those vaccinated first.
Andrew Pollard, the head of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said the risk was mainly in the unvaccinated.
“(Boosters) may have some at least initial downward pressure on the transmission that we’re seeing at the moment,” he told BBC radio.
“But…the biggest issue for intensive care is not the highly vaccinated individuals, it remains the unvaccinated.”
He added that a subvariant of Delta that is growing in England was unlikely to change the picture.