Something strange is happening in Britain. Covid cases are plummeting instead of soaring.
By Karla Adam and William Booth,
Henry Nicholls Reuters
LONDON — This is a puzzler. Covid cases are plummeting in Britain. They were supposed to soar. The scientists are not sure why.
The daily number of new infections recorded in the United Kingdom has fallen for seven days in a row — to 23,511. That is half what it was one week ago.
People are asking if could this be the first real-world evidence that the pandemic in Britain is sputtering out — after three national lockdowns and almost 130,000 deaths?
Public health experts are perplexed: Where is the uptick, let alone the surge?
The highly contagious delta variant of the virus, first detected in India, accounts for almost all new cases in Britain. Pubs are serving pints at the rail, throngs are packing the beaches, and night clubs have reopened with maskless youths crowded on the dance floors. Then there was the Euro 2020 soccer madness. England did indeed party most heartily.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government ended almost all government mandates in England for mask-wearing and social distancing on July 19, dubbed “Freedom Day” by the press. Viral defense is now a “personal choice.”
Public health experts, alongside the government, predicted that cases would rise, perhaps even soar, in the weeks after Freedom Day. Some of the best infectious-disease modelers on the planet warned that 100,000 new cases a day this summer could be expected.
But cases have been dropping, even as hospitalizations and deaths climb.
Scientists have theories. Maybe it’s the sunshine? There was a week-long heat wave.
Schools have closed for the summer break, so children are not spreading the virus as much.
It is also possible that people have stopped getting tested — because if they test positive, even if they are fully vaccinated, they are asked to quarantine for 10 days, even if they are about to travel to France for their holidays.
Or maybe Britain has reached the threshold for herd immunity. More than 70 percent of adults in Britain are fully vaccinated, and 88 percent have had a first dose, one of the best vaccine uptakes in the world. Among those who have not been vaccinated, many have had covid or asymptomatic infection, adding to natural immunity.
Johnson is not celebrating. Not yet.
Speaking to reporters on a rainy Tuesday from under an unusually smallish umbrella, the prime minister said that, yes, he has noticed the “better figures.”
But he added: “It is very, very important that we don’t allow ourselves to run away with premature conclusions about this.”
“People have got to remain very cautious, and that remains the approach of the government,” he said.
But the people so want the pandemic to end. The Daily Mail’s front page on Wednesday declared: “Covid is all over bar the shouting.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks from his country residence at Chequers during a virtual question time parliamentary session after Health Secretary Sajid Javid tested positive for the coronavirus, July 21, 2021. (U.K. Parliament/Reuters TV/REUTERS)
Stephen Griffin, an associate professor at the University of Leeds, said the reduction of cases was “very, very strange.”
He cautioned that further data needs to be analyzed but suggested that it could be a result of a raft of behavioral factors, ranging from the warm weather to many’s people’s disinclination to take a test if they want to go on vacation. Another factor is the end of the Euro 2020 soccer tournament, which drove thousands into pubs and onto the streets.
Griffin also said Britain’s “pingdemic” could have had an impact. Last week, almost 620,000 people were “pinged” by a National Health Service app in England and Wales telling them to self-quarantine. In addition, more than 1 million children in England were out of school in mid-July for coronavirus-related reasons.
“All of these things compounded together may genuinely reflect a reduced number of tested positive cases,” he said. “Whether that actually reflects infection or not, we don’t know.”
Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London whose models have shaped government policy in Britain and the United States, said it now appears possible that the pandemic could be in the rearview mirror.
He added his own notes of caution, too. He told the BBC on Tuesday that the effects of lifting restrictions on “Freedom Day” earlier this month have yet to be seen.
Ferguson also said there could be a spike in cases if the weather turns bad or when schools return in September.
“We’re not completely out of the woods,” he said. “But the equation has fundamentally changed. The effect of vaccines has been huge in reducing the risk of hospitalizations and death. And I’m positive that by late September or October . . . we will be looking back at most of the pandemic.”
Ferguson added: “We will have covid with us. We will still have people dying from covid. But we’ll have put the bulk of the pandemic behind us.”