COVID-19 is rising again in the U.K., but many shrug it off

With U.K. roads clogged to pre-pandemic levels and ridership on London’s subway soaring, many people are acting as if the pandemic is over - even though there are now 40,000 new COVID-19 cases a day and the number is growing.

Is this what 'living with COVID' looks like? Many in the U.K. hope so, but scientists have doubts

Restaurants and cafés are busy along Old Compton Street as temporary al fresco street seating continues in London's Soho district. Several streets in central London have been blocked for traffic at certain times to allow street seating at bars, cafés and restaurants during the pandemic. (Pascal Leblond/CBC )

A spike in new COVID-19 infections is sweeping Britain, but from packed trains on London's subway to full audiences at West End musicals, the prevailing attitude may be shifting to "We can live with it."

"It's done. COVID is over, for sure," Hannah Worrel, 34, said as she joined a crowded throng of after-work partiers on Soho's famed Old Compton Street.

England lifted mask mandates — except in some places such as the London subway — and occupancy restrictions for indoor gatherings over the summer. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have kept them in place for now.

Crowds quickly returned to popular hangouts, albeit at somewhat less than pre-pandemic numbers. 

This was despite the fact that new COVID-19 cases have been piling up at an alarming rate of as many as 41,000 a day recently across the U.K.

WATCH | The National's report on the response to rising COVID cases in Britain:

Nonetheless, few people that CBC News spoke to in Soho said they saw significant cause for concern, much less a reason to start imposing restrictions again.

Hospitalizations remain relatively low and the 7,000 or so patients being cared for at the moment in COVID-19 wards account for just seven per cent of the U.K.'s hospital beds, according to the BBC. COVID-related deaths have generally hovered around 100 a day, although a few days within the last week have spiked higher than that.   

Traffic on London's subway surged to pre-pandemic levels this week. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

While that's significantly more than the daily death counts of 30 to 40 last spring, it's still dramatically lower than last winter when more than 1,000 fatalities were recorded every day. 

'Complex point of the pandemic'

"We're at a very complex point of the epidemic," said Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh.

"There is significant protection and immunity right now, fortunately built up largely through vaccines, which means we are in a stronger position than last year.

"At the same time, we have the delta" variant, said Sridhar.

Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, says that while vaccines have dampened the impact of the coronavirus, they appear to be less effective at suppressing the delta variant completely. (Alan Inglis)

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control say delta is twice as contagious as earlier variants of the coronavirus. 

Sridhar said while vaccines have dampened its impact, they appear to be less effective at suppressing delta completely.   

Which is why, she said, even as infections soar, the new cases have so far not been putting significant pressure on the country's hospital system because the intensity of sickness has generally been milder.

That in turn has contributed to the widespread feeling that COVID-19 has lost a lot of its punch.

'It's like the common cold now'

"Everyone is vaccinated. I'm proud to be double-vaxxed. It's like the common cold now," said Micheal McConnelly, who joined the Soho gathering.

"We learned to live with the flu [getting] vaccinated every year, so you got to learn to live with COVID," said Vicki Brown,  a 36-year-old National Health Service nurse, who said she believes the U.K. has entered a phase of the pandemic where this will be the "new normal" for months to come.

Beyond the festive street life, transport authorities say key indicators about passenger traffic suggest a growing number of people are trying to get back to their old routines.

By law, wearing a mask remains mandatory on London's subway system. In practice, compliance is haphazard. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

Roads and highways leading into London's central core were jammed this week with the end of summer holidays and the resumption of schools as rush-hour traffic returned to levels not seen since 2019. 

London's subway and bus network also had its busiest day in 18 months on Monday, with more than two million trips taken on Monday. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government has suggested that people return to their offices and put work from home behind them, and this week the traffic increases suggest many have done just that.

Impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber battled COVID lockdowns, sick stage hands and infected performers to finally launch his new stage production of Cinderella in the West End two weeks ago, and while many who came to see it wore masks, there were no audience limitations.

But can the current dynamic of high transmissions with relatively low hospitalizations last?

Susan Michie, director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London and a member of a government advisory group on COVID strategy, told CBC News she believes eventually the health-care system will come under extreme pressure again.   

A U.K. government advisory committee is not recommending vaccinations against the coronavirus for those between the ages of 12 and 15, but the Conservative government may give the green light anyway. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Challenging winter

"I think most scientists think that the winter will prove very challenging," she said.

She called the current strategy of letting new infections soar while not imposing any new restrictions a "gamble."

"The problem with having high transmission rates, even if hospitalization rates don't soar, is that the higher the transmission rate the more mutations. The more mutations, the more variants and the more likely there is to be a variant that escapes the vaccine," she told CBC News in an interview.

The U.K. has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, with more than 65 per cent of the total population having had two doses, just slightly less than Canada's 66 per cent vaccination rate.   

A key difference between the two countries, however, has been on the issue of vaccinating young people.

London's subway and bus network had its busiest day in 18 months on Monday. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

While 48 million adults in the U.K. have had at least one dose of a vaccine, the country's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization has opted against recommending vaccinations for up to six million teens between the ages of 12 and 15.

The expert panel, which was tasked with considering the medical benefits of vaccinating teens, concluded the "jabs" would bring little health benefit as the level of illness with younger people is usually not so severe. 

However, the decision has been widely criticized, with educators, parents and many MPs inside the ruling Conservative Party demanding vaccinations go ahead anyway.

"What [the panel] is not looking at is education loss, social loss, the fears of another variant coming along that possibly could be more harmful to children," said Sridhar, adding her voice to those calling for the Chief Medical Health Officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to proceed with the vaccinations anyway.

Still, despite the outward veneer of normality, Michie, the behavioural psychologist, said she doesn't believe a majority of people in the U.K. really believe the pandemic is over.

"What we've seen all along is that people, when they see that there is a threat, they behave very responsibly," she said,  noting that many people began locking themselves down long before the government told them to.

If COVID-19 cases continue to rise and hospitals become more crowded, she expects people won't wait for the government to catch up to the changing reality — and they'll take action themselves long before.


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

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