Britons are encouraged these days- though in most cases not required- to wear face coverings in crowded indoor spaces. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson regularly appears in the packed, poorly ventilated House of Commons cheek-by-jowl with other maskless Conservative lawmakers.
For critics, that image encapsulates the flaw in the government’s strategy, which has abandoned most pandemic restrictions and is banking on voluntary restraint and a high vaccination rate to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
As winter approaches, bringing the threat of a new COVID surge, Britain’s light touch is setting it apart from more cautious nations.
“The story of this government in the pandemic is too little, too late,” said Layla Moran, an opposition Liberal Democrat lawmaker who heads the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus.
She said some UK hospitals are already seeing the number of virus patients in intensive care units that they would normally expect in the depths of winter, though overall daily hospital admissions are running at about a fifth of January’s peak.
And while cases soared when restrictions were lifted this summer, deaths didn’t follow at anywhere near the same pace. But the winter months, when respiratory diseases are usually at their highest, could bring an added challenge.
“Unless the government starts to do something differently, I don’t think we’re going to be able to avert the worst this winter,” Moran said.
The government argues that its plan is working so far- and it can change course if needed.
Britain has recorded more than 135,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest toll in Europe after Russia and about the same number per capita as the United States. Yet it also has organized a successful inoculation campaign that has seen 65% of the whole population fully vaccinated.