London; Britain's health minister Sajid Javid on Wednesday resisted calls from doctors for a return of restrictions to halt a rising wave of COVID-19 infections, but gave a stark warning they would be brought back if people did not take up vaccination offers.
Britain reported 223 new deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday, the highest daily figure since March, and cases are the highest in Europe, with nearly 50,000 new infections reported on Wednesday.
The government's plan is to rely on vaccines and drugs to limit the impact of the virus this winter, instead of bringing in restrictions or any more lockdowns, having already shut the economy three times.
But Javid gave a warning that the 5 million people aged over 16 who have not had a vaccine dose needed to get one, and those already vaccinated needed to take up booster shots when offered.
Otherwise a "Plan B", involving limited steps such as mask mandates, a work from home order and vaccination passes to get into venues, would be enacted.
"Am I saying that if we don't do our bit, get vaccinated, all those behavioural changes that we can make, that we are more likely to face restrictions as we head into winter, then I am saying that," he told a news conference.
"If not enough people get their booster jabs, if not enough of those people that were eligible for the original offer ...
don't come forward, if people don't wear masks when they really should ..., it's going to hit us all, and it would of course make it more likely we're going to have more restrictions." He said new infections could reach 100,000 cases a day and reiterated that the pandemic was not over. He cautioned that Britain was losing ground in its efforts to outpace the coronavirus with the vaccine rollout.
"We need to sustain the progress that we've made, we could lose it, we could really lose that progress if people don't take up their vaccination offers," he said.
Things will get worse
Britain has the eighth biggest death toll globally from COVID-19, with 139,000 fatalities. But it also had a quick start to its vaccine programme and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has lifted almost all restrictions in England, ending social distancing measures and mask mandates.
The rollout has stalled, however, slipping behind several other European countries, while the booster programme is off to a slow start.
Doctors have expressed concern that an increase in numbers going into hospital, combined with pressures on the National Health Service (NHS) from seasonal viruses, could leave hospitals unable to deal with long waiting lists and function normally.
"This is the middle of October. Things are only going to get worse," Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, told BBC radio. "The health service is right at the edge ... if you push much further we will not be able to provide the level of service that people need to have." Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency, said the number of infections, hospitalisations and deaths was high and moving in the wrong direction as winter approached.
"We are kicking off winter at a really high level of cases," Harries told the news conference.
Javid said the current pressures on the health service were not unsustainable but would act if that picture changed.
He also announced deals for two experimental COVID-19 antivirals, one developed by Merck and Ridgeback Therapeutics and another by Pfizer.