LONDON — Mandatory Covid-19 restrictions are unlikely to be reintroduced in Britain this summer, health researchers and physicians have said, even as the country enters a new wave of infections.
More than 1.7 million Brits — or around 1 in 35 people — tested positive for Covid in the week through to June 18, the latest data from the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics showed Friday.
The surge marks a 75% increase from two weeks prior when the country commemorated Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee. It also comes ahead of a summer of large-scale musical and sporting events, which could push cases higher still.
Yet, health researchers and physicians say they don’t foresee a return to obligatory public health measures unless there is a major shift in the virus’ behavior.
“I don’t think we will have any mandatory restrictions unless the situation looks unmanageable for the health service, and especially the critical care service,” Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, told CNBC Monday.
The majority of new infections are being driven by omicron BA.4 and BA.5, two newer variants that have now become the dominant strains in Britain, the U.K. Heath Security Agency said Friday.
Though both have been designated “variants of concern,” scientists say there is currently no evidence to suggest either cause more serious illness than previous strains, and they are unlikely to behave drastically differently.
Any shift in approach, if it were to happen, would be if intensive care units were to come under significant pressure, Clarke said. Hospitalizations were up 8.2% over the past week, but ICU and high dependency unit admission rates have so far remained low at 0.2%, according to UKHSA.
“ICU is the bottleneck on this, and that’s where you’re going to see — if you see it — an inability to cope,” Clarke said.
‘Living with Covid’
The U.K. government has been committed to its strategy of “living with Covid” since all restrictions were lifted in England in February this year.
Last week, England’s former deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, said that the virus had become increasingly like the seasonal flu and that the onus was now on individuals to “frame those risks for themselves.”
“In terms of its kind of lethality, the picture now is much, much, much closer to seasonal flu than it was when [Covid] first emerged,” he told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program.
Scotland’s national clinical director echoed those comments Sunday, telling the BBC that it would take a “dramatic” change for mandatory restrictions to be brought back.
“People are going back about their business. Glastonbury is on, TRNSMT is on next week,” Professor Jason Leitch said, referring to two U.K. music festivals in Somerset and Glasgow, respectively. “All of those things are really, really important to get back.”
However, he conceded that people would need to accept a few “small prices” to ensure normality continues, such as keeping up-to-date with vaccinations, wearing face coverings where appropriate and staying off work when sick.
The government has already committed to providing additional booster vaccinations to over-65s, frontline health and social workers and vulnerable younger people this autumn.
However, Clarke said it would be prudent to extend the program to over-50s ahead of the winter months when the country could face a more severe spike in infections.
“The immunity from boosters is already beginning to wane and will do more so by the end of the year,” Clarke said, adding that that could be the more important period to watch in terms of restrictions.
Britain’s Health Secretary Sajid Javid suggested last week that the government may be considering expanding the program.