Covid: Can UK avoid a Europe-style return to lockdown

Covid infection rates have started rising sharply in parts of Western Europe, prompting the introduction of fresh restrictions and lockdowns.

It has triggered fears the UK could follow suit. But there are plenty of reasons to believe Britain will escape the worst of what is being seen on the continent. In fact, the UK may well be in the strongest position of all to weather Covid this winter.

To understand why that could be the case, you need to look at the reasons why cases have started to take off in Western Europe.

Unlike the UK - and England in particular - many parts of Europe kept major restrictions in place for much longer.

Whereas England fully unlocked in mid-July, parts of Europe did not do this until the autumn, and in many places kept tougher restrictions in place even as they did.

Part of this was to do with timing. The UK was hit by the more infectious Alpha variant and then Delta sooner, meaning it was in a position to push ahead with unlocking before others.

Chart showing infection rates

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Chart showing Covid deaths

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But it was also a conscious choice backed by the government's top scientists, Prof Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance.

The logic - along with the benefit of ending restrictions that themselves cause harm to health - was that it was better to have the rebound in infection, the so-called exit wave, in the summer.

It was felt the increase in the spread of the virus would be mitigated by the better weather, meaning more time spent outdoors, and would avoid the winter crunch when pressure on the health system increases across the board.

UK has high levels of immunity

The UK has, in effect, already had the wave the rest of Europe is seeing and has managed to avoid being swamped by it.

That is mainly because of the amount of immunity built up.

A combination of good vaccine rollout, particularly among the older more vulnerable groups who are the ones most at risk of serious illness, and natural immunity from infection means there is likely to be a much smaller pool of vulnerable people for the virus to infect.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have been trying to quantify this by looking at what would happen if everyone was suddenly exposed to the virus in one go.

They modelled this for England - although there is nothing to suggest Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be any different - and 18 other European nations.

If this hypothetical situation happened, England would have by far the fewest people ending up in hospital - 62 per 100,000 people - because of immunity built up by vaccination and infection. That compares with more than 300 in Germany, largely because of their lower levels of infection to date, and more than 800 in Romania, which has struggled to convince its public to come forward for vaccination.