Once again the UK and Europe are heading in opposite directions. While Covid-19 cases in Britain have been declining, those in France, Germany, Austria and several other countries have risen dramatically in recent weeks. A fourth pandemic wave threatens to break over these nations, raising the prospect of renewed lockdowns there.
This raises a critically important question: is the UK likely to follow suit in a few weeks, or will Europe’s rising numbers peak and start to decline, as they have been doing in Britain? Will Europe follow us or will we follow Europe?
Prof Mark Woolhouse of Edinburgh University is clear on the issue. “I think the UK is ahead at present and Europe is following us,” he told the Observer. A major factor in this process was the arrival of the Delta variant of the Covid virus, he added. “It is substantially more serious than previous variants and it hit many European countries much later than it did in Britain. It has struck in these nations at a time when vaccine protection – typically in the most vulnerable, the ones who were vaccinated first – has begun to wane significantly. That is not an ideal situation at all.”
This point was backed by Prof Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London, who told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he thought the UK was in “quite a different situation” from other European nations, where curbs on freedoms are being considered.
“We’ve had two or three weeks of declining cases and admission to hospitals – that may be petering out, it is too early to say. We’ve also had very high case numbers – between 30,000 and 50,000 a day – really for the last four months, since the beginning of July.
“That has obviously had some downsides. It has also, paradoxically, had an upside of boosting the immunity of the population compared with countries like Germany, the Netherlands and France, which have had much lower case numbers and are only now seeing an uptick.”
Michael Head of Southampton University also argues that European countries are now arriving at the point the UK found itself in a few months ago.
“The UK rolled out a vaccination programme earlier than most countries, and therefore has experienced the impact of waning immunity earlier. However, the booster vaccines here in the UK are clearly having an impact around hospital admissions and new cases in older populations.”
Prof Paul Hunter of the University of East Anglia is even more emphatic. “We are not behind Europe in this wave: they are behind us. We are not currently seeing a surge of the same magnitude as Europe at present largely because of the high case numbers over recent months, which most of Europe missed out on. The key exception is Romania, which has just had a large peak and which is now seeing a decline.”
This type of behaviour is typical of an epidemic infection as it becomes endemic, Hunter adds. “As a disease approaches its endemic equilibrium you get oscillations around the eventual equilibrium. So we can probably expect oscillations across Europe for a year or so yet. Sometimes the UK will be worse than Europe: at other times Europe will be worse than us.”