Why does the UK have highest Covid case rate in western Europe?

Coronavirus deaths have fallen in the region’s ‘Covid capital’ - but Britain may be facing tough winter

England lockdown lifted
England scrapped lockdown restrictions earlier than its European neighbours
(Image credit: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

The UK now has the highest rate of coronavirus cases in western Europe, with 40,00 new positive tests reported yesterday alone.

“With the news dominated by other issues, it has gone almost unnoticed,” said BBC health correspondent Nick Triggle, but the “rates certainly look troubling”.

Only a “handful” of countries on the continent have higher infection levels than the UK and they are all based in eastern Europe, he wrote. “Compared with the big nations in western Europe, the numbers are significantly higher.”

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One reason may be that England unlocked much earlier than other nations. “So it is hardly surprising a virus that thrives on human contact has taken off in the UK compared with the rest of Europe,” said Triggle.

And while countries such as Germany, France and Spain have “pursued a ‘vaccine plus’ strategy, England has opted for a ‘vaccine just’ strategy”, said Christina Pagel, director of UCL’s Clinical Operational Research Unit, and Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

In an article for The Guardian last week, the pair explained that both strategies involve vaccinating as many people as possible. But while England has relied on the jabs rollout alone, other countries have also focused on other measures to stop the spread, such as face masks and vaccine passports.

“Measured by death rates, the situation is not quite as bad,” wrote Pagel and McKee. Countries with weaker health systems and low vaccination uptake among the vulnerable have particularly high death rates, but most such nations are in eastern Europe.

England “is still doing much worse in terms of Covid deaths than our western European and Nordic neighbours” though, the two academics said. The UK’s current death rate is more than twice as high as those of Germany and France.

Although case rates are “not directly comparable, it is clear that the UK is an outlier in western Europe”, said The Times’ science editor Tom Whipple.

A newly released joint report from the Commons science and health committees partly blamed “British exceptionalism” for public health failures in the UK’s response to the pandemic last year - a pattern also noted by others.

Simon Clarke, professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, told Whipple that “the UK has firmly committed itself to ‘running hot’ when managing its Covid spread. Mitigations which might have had an effect have been firmly rejected and people are largely behaving as though the pandemic is entirely behind us.”

Downing Street and senior government advisers have repeatedly explained their reasoning: that the virus will be around “forever” and that as a society, we have to learn to live with it.

The fact that Britain has kept deaths down despite the sharp rise in cases is “testament to the success of the Covid-19 vaccination programme”, said City A.M. But the country “lags behind its neighbours when it comes to hospital beds”, added the paper, so “the Covid capital of Europe” could still face a tough winter if cases don’t fall.

The BBC’s Triggle agreed that the NHS “has, compared with other nations, much less capacity to absorb extra demand”.

Experts hope that the combination of natural immunity and vaccination will lead to a sustained fall in infections as winter approaches, he said. But “it will not take much for the situation to unravel”.

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