With a 7-day average of 34,521 COVID-19 cases, the United Kingdom grapples a surge in infections and the rapid spread of a more transmissible and deadlier variant—all before winter can set in, a period of time believed to be advantageous to viral infections.
Addressing a press conference on Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled his government’s winter plan to tackle the virus.
“Plan A” outlines measures to promote vaccinations and continue with testing and isolation rules. Johnson said that given the high level of vaccinations and antibodies in the UK’s population, smaller changes could now make a bigger difference and give “the confidence that we don’t need to go back to the lockdowns of the past”.
“Plan B”, which is kept in “reserve”, includes measures like a possible face mask mandate as well as other options to prevent the National Health Service (NHS) from being overwhelmed.
At the press conference, Johnson highlighted how, despite the UK facing more infections today than it did last year at this time—a period that preceded a deadly second wave that took the lives of over 56,700 people—the country is now in a better position to face a possible winter surge, due to the large vaccination rate.
With this rationale, the hope is that by increasing vaccination rates of the unvaccinated—who he says mostly comprise those who did not have the time to get vaccinated, rather than a more vaccine-hostile anti-vax crowd—the UK can avoid requiring sterner measures like another lockdown.
However, Plan B—which includes provisions to bar those who are not fully vaccinated from indoor events with over 500 attendeesw could still be followed through if winter sees a COVID surge. Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who unveiled the plans earlier in the day, said the controversial proposal of “vaccine passports” could come into play. Earlier, this idea was dropped following controversy and protests from rebel backbench Tory MPs.
Plan B will also include provisions to make face masks mandatory in certain settings and measures to ask people to work from home.
At the evening presser, Johnson refused to rule out the possibility of needing these indoor vaccine passports for certain events, saying he would defend vaccine passports in principle but did not think they were necessary at present.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said Plan B could be triggered by three things: The rate of people being hospitalised, the rate of change of hospitalisations, and the overall state of the NHS. He noted that this would be the UK’s first winter with the Delta variant.