By: Stephen Castle
@ 2021 The New York Times Company
Despite high and rising coronavirus case numbers, the British government on Wednesday rejected calls for the immediate reintroduction of some restrictions in England, while warning that they might be needed if the rollout of vaccine booster shots failed to contain the worsening situation.
Speaking at a news conference, the health secretary, Sajid Javid, said that a contingency plan for tighter rules would not be carried out “at this point” but added that he would be “staying vigilant” and warned that new cases could surge to 100,000 a day.
“We will do what it takes to make sure that this pressure does not become unsustainable, and we won’t allow the NHS to become overwhelmed,” Javid said, referring to Britain’s National Health Service, which is already under pressure. “We are concerned. Everyone is right to be concerned,” he added.
Javid warned that if the situation deteriorates, he could be forced to activate a contingency plan that would reimpose some restrictions that were scrapped in England in July. Under this plan, mask-wearing rules could return, people could be urged to work from home, and those visiting nightclubs and other venues could be required to show proof of their vaccination status or of a recent negative test. If necessary, he added, “we won’t hesitate to act.”
Still hoping to avoid that step, Javid urged people to meet outdoors where possible and to wear a face covering in confined spaces. He also appealed directly to people to get boosters adding: “If you are invited for a vaccine, please take it up.”
Earlier, Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, told the BBC in a televised interview that an increase in booster shots was what was “going to give us more protection,” adding that he did not want “to reverse back to a situation where we have lockdowns.”
The government argues that hospital admissions have remained low because of high rates of vaccination. But vaccines are waning in effectiveness at preventing infection, and Britain, which rolled out vaccines early, is now reporting one of the highest rates of new cases in the world. Vaccines still offer robust protection against hospitalizations and deaths.
There have been more than 40,000 new cases for seven consecutive days — reaching 49,139 on Wednesday — and 869 patients were admitted to hospitals on Oct. 16. While the death toll is still low compared with last winter’s level, the daily death toll rose to 223 on Tuesday, the highest number since March, before falling back to 179 on Wednesday.
Analysts believe cases in Britain are rising because large numbers of children are unvaccinated and schools do not require face coverings. Among adults, mask wearing is less prevalent than in some other parts of Europe, where they are often required indoors and where cases per capita are much lower.
Health professionals have recommended the reintroduction of some of the measures — such as mandatory mask wearing in some locations — that were swept away in July, when England lifted almost all of its legal restrictions on what the tabloid media called “freedom day.”
The National Health Service Confederation, which represents organizations that provide health services, asked the government Monday to immediately introduce mandatory face coverings in crowded and enclosed spaces.
“Without pre-emptive action, we risk stumbling into a winter crisis,” said Matthew Taylor, the confederation’s chief executive.
In recent months, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s strategy has been to focus on rolling out boosters to the most vulnerable people and to vaccinate children ages 12 to 15. But critics say that plan has faltered.
The government has said that it is monitoring the rise in cases and that the current rates are not yet sufficient to justify a switch in strategy to help contain the spread of the virus in England. The government’s main concern has been preventing Britain’s stretched health service from being overwhelmed, and so far, vaccinations have kept the level of hospitalizations manageable, officials have said.
In September, the government in England put on hold proposals to require those entering nightclubs and attending large events like soccer games to show proof of vaccination or of a recent negative test. Scotland and Wales, however, are requiring it.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.