EDINBURGH, Scotland—The first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in Britain was treated like a national wartime effort. Most people gathered weekly on their doorsteps to applaud frontline workers, they looked to the dear old queen for reassurance, and followed the rules in the understanding that they would be temporary and effective.
But now Britain is in a wave that seems equally as dire as the first, and everyone is exhausted and bloody well fed up. On Monday, the number of hospital patients in England crept over the peak from April and Britain hit a record of more than 41,000 cases—although that, of course, comes with the caveat that far more tests are being carried out now.
But what’s even more concerning is that these numbers are being recorded despite vast parts of the four nations of the United Kingdom being under strict, supposedly curve-squashing measures. Following the prime minister’s Christmas-wrecking announcement that a new variant of the virus was running riot through London, more than half of England was placed into its top tier of restrictions—the whole of Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Scottish mainland followed suit.
Earlier in the pandemic, the logic was that it would take a few weeks to know if new measures are being effective in dragging the numbers back down—but public health experts are so alarmed by what they’re seeing in England with the new, faster-spreading variant that they’ve already warned that further steps are needed. Those steps may include what political leaders have been most keen to avoid—closing down schools.
Prof. Andrew Hayward, a member of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, known as NERVTAG, said Tuesday that the “50 percent increase in transmissibility” of the new variant means that “the previous levels of restrictions that worked before won’t work now, and so Tier 4 restrictions are likely to be necessary—or even higher than that.” He said he wants to see “decisive, early, national action to prevent a catastrophe in January and February.”
It was reported Monday that a new tier is being considered that would include a delayed reopening of schools after the Christmas and New Year’s break. Dr. Nick Davies, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, said: “If our parameter estimates are correct… it seems like [Tier 4] alone isn’t enough, so something else might need to be done on top of that. And we’ve looked at school closures because that’s sort of the next obvious thing to do on top of those restrictions.”
Political leaders want to avoid a national lockdown like the one seen in the spring, when schools closed for the majority of students and people were told to only go outside once a day for exercise. But, just like in that first wave, hospitals in the south of England and in Scotland and Wales are now reportedly at risk of becoming overwhelmed—the problem that forced leaders to bring in the first near-total lockdown.
Prof. Steve Hams, a chief nurse at Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said NHS workers are becoming “increasingly exhausted” as this terrible year draws to a close, telling the BBC on Tuesday: “We felt during April that there would be an end to this but actually we’re now seeing a third peak, so trying to keep our colleagues and our teams going through this time is just incredibly difficult.”
The prime minister is due to hold a meeting Tuesday evening to discuss possible new measures with his cabinet members, which could be announced by Health Secretary Matt Hancock as early as Wednesday.
Regardless of what they decide, Britain will enter the new year in perhaps the darkest moment of the pandemic yet—with surging numbers, an exhausted National Health Service workforce, and, for most people, the respite of the vaccine still many difficult months away.