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In U.K.'s Covid summer, delta decline offers clear lesson: vaccinate

UniqueThis 12 Aug 4

LONDON — It looked like a rolling disaster: England lifting almost all coronavirus restrictions just as the highly transmissible delta variant was sending infection rates skyrocketing.

But British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's gamble could well pay off, at least in the short term, providing a lesson to other countries desperate for any light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.

"I think the U.K. is in a very favorable position, a better position than it's ever been during the pandemic," said Francois Balloux, a professor of biosciences at University College London. "I would say the near future, and perhaps even the long-term future, looks better than it ever has before."

Crucial to Britain's apparent success are vaccines. The U.K. boasts one of the world's most successful campaigns, with more than 88 percent of adults receiving one dose, and 73 percent a second, according to government data as of Wednesday.

For the U.S., that drops to 70 percent for one dose and 60 percent for two — and rates are far lower in Southern states such as Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi. Officials there are now in the same race of vaccine-versus-variant that Britain has been battling this summer.

"Many people in the U.S. and Europe are following very closely the situation in the U.K.," Balloux said.

Experts were aghast when last month Johnson pressed ahead with "Freedom Day" — so named by the tabloid press — despite the United Kingdom suffering the world's highest daily infection rate at the time.

English restaurants were allowed to open at full capacity, bass once again shook nightclub dance floors, and social gatherings weren't limited in size. (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland run their own health policies and have reopened slightly more cautiously.)

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Masks were no longer mandatory in English public transport and shops — although some city authorities, such as Transport for London, kept them in place.

Some citizens responded with trepidation, particularly vulnerable people who felt allowing infections to rip through the country put them at risk because vaccines do not fully protect them.

Others drank it in — quite literally when it came to dance-floor crowds who counted down to midnight on July 18, when U.K. restrictions lifted. Most controls had already been relaxed in time for Euro 2020, a soccer tournament hosted in part at London's Wembley Stadium.

The writhing sea of drunken bodies on the day of the final between England and Italy gave no clue that a pandemic was still raging. Experts believe the tournament, coupled with a washout early summer, are two reasons cases rose sharply from late May to mid-July.

Even though the government's "wall of immunity" kept most vaccinated people out of hospitals and morgues, many critics worried that allowing cases to hit 200,000 a day (as one former top government scientific adviser predicted) could breed new variants and leave hundreds of thousands of people with long-Covid. Some accused Johnson's Conservative Party of paying more attention to their libertarian beliefs than science.

London's Egg London nightclub in the early hours of July 19.Rob Pinney / Getty Images

But the government held firm. And in mid-July, just as daily cases hit 60,000, they began to decline. More encouraging was data from Scotland, where infections not only began to fall a few weeks before England's, but were followed by a decline in hospitalizations, too.

This third wave for the U.K. has been nothing like its first two, which caused nearly 130,000 deaths and briefly the world's highest daily deaths per capita. Whereas January's peak saw 80,000 daily cases and 1,300 daily deaths, July's peak of 60,000 daily cases brought no more than 78 deaths in one day.

Experts say this is incontrovertible proof of the vaccines' power.

Both Scotland and England's decline followed their respective exits from Euro 2020. During the tournament, men were 30 percent more likely than women to test positive, according to Imperial College London research. This, after weeks in which mostly male fans packed onto trains to travel to stadiums and crammed into pubs to watch games.

Driving cases down further, many experts believe, was a brief spell of fine weather, coupled by hundreds of thousands of children being off from school because of infections or symptoms, or being told to isolate because of close contact with people who had tested positive.

The vaccine has been supplemented, too. The U.K. had two devastating waves in 2020, meaning that today, either by shot or illness, an estimated 90 percent of people have Covid-19 antibodies, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Shoppers on Portobello Road market in London's Notting Hill on July 31.Niklas Halle'n / AFP via Getty Images

The U.K. is far from out of the woods yet, though

Allowing high numbers of cases to circulate could breed more variants. The publicly funded National Health Service is not at risk of collapse, as was the fear during the height of the pandemic, but some hospitals are under severe pressure as Covid-19 admissions compound backlogs and stresses in other areas.

Furthermore, many experts expect cases to rise again in the fall and winter, when kids return to school and adults huddle indoors to escape the worsening weather and Britain's long nights.

That has set the stage for the latest battleground in the British pandemic: vaccinating children.

The U.K. says children over 12 will only be offered a vaccine if they are vulnerable or live with someone who is. Government advisers say that the risk of side effects, including an inflammation of the heart muscle, is vanishingly small. But so, too, is their risk of serious illness from Covid-19.

Critics say that not vaccinating children leaves a gaping hole in Britain's wall of herd immunity.

"We should use this precious time to prepare for school openings and vaccinate adolescents," Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist at Queen Mary University in London, tweeted Monday. "If declines in school attendance and subsequent closures were partly responsible for this drop, they will reverse when schools open."