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24 November 2021

Can the UK evade the winter lockdowns spreading across Europe?

Austria is in lockdown, Merkel wants tighter restrictions in Germany, the Netherlands has imposed a three-week partial lockdown and Belgium has tightened rules on face masks.

By Freddie Hayward

Covid cases are surging across Europe as governments reimpose restrictions in a return to measures many thought vaccines had made redundant.

Austria went into a full lockdown on 22 November. Angela Merkel has called for tighter restrictions in Germany, while her government’s health minister has predicted that by the end of winter “pretty much everyone in Germany… will be vaccinated, cured or dead”. Meanwhile, the Netherlands imposed a three-week partial lockdown last weekend and Belgium has tightened rules on face masks.

Which all begs the question: could the UK government impose similar restrictions? In late October, Boris Johnson said that another lockdown was not “on the cards”. But Covid cases in the UK remain high. In the seven days up to 23 November (Tuesday), over 297,000 people tested positive in the UK while 978 died within 28 days of a positive test. The government has faced some calls for the introduction of so-called plan B measures, which would mean compulsory mask-wearing in certain settings, encouraging people to work from home and the introduction of vaccine passports. 

But there are reasons why the UK is in a better position than much of the continent. First, case numbers in the UK are not increasing at the same rate as other European countries. Austria, for instance, has seen a sharp increase in cases from the middle of October. Despite daily case numbers running above 25,000 since mid-July, the UK hasn’t experienced this sharp surge as the autumn arrived.  

[See also: Why Austria has become the first European country to make vaccination compulsory]

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Second, the UK’s booster programme has reached more people than other countries in Europe. Over 27 per cent of the population over 12 years old have received their booster jab. This is important because early research suggests that three doses offer 93 per cent protection against symptomatic disease. 

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Third, the UK appears to have higher levels of immunity than other European countries. Over the summer, the UK experienced much higher infection levels than many parts of the continent where restrictions were only lifted in the autumn. An early preprint study suggests that the combination of widespread vaccine take-up and natural immunity from infection means England would have the fewest hospitalisations if everyone was exposed to the virus compared with 18 other European countries. This might help explain why a country such as the Netherlands, despite a higher vaccination rate, has a worst Covid case rate than the UK. 

And what about Christmas? Last year the government promised not to impose strict restrictions on Christmas before frantically U-turning as case numbers rose. Although the vaccines have provided a level of protection against the virus that has reduced the need for restrictions, the current uncertainty about the success of the booster programme and the risk of a new variant means it’s too early to say what Christmas 2021 will look like.

[See also: Should I get a Covid-19 booster jab?]

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