For the last four months, Britain has run a grand epidemiological experiment, lifting virtually all coronavirus restrictions, even in the face of a high daily rate of infections. Its leaders justified the approach on the grounds that the country’s rapid rollout of vaccines had weakened the link between infection and serious illness.
Now, with cases, hospital admissions and deaths all rising again, the effect of vaccines beginning to wear off, and winter looming, Britain’s strategy of learning to live with the virus is coming under its stiffest test yet.
New cases surpassed 50,000 on Thursday, an 18 percent increase over the last week and the second time cases have passed that level since July. The number of people admitted to hospitals rose 15.4 percent over the same period, reaching 959, while 115 people died of Covid-19, an increase of almost 11 percent.
The sudden resurgence of the virus is a rude jolt for a country that believed it had put the worst of the pandemic behind it after a remarkably successful vaccine deployment.
At issue is the core trade-off British officials made last summer. They decided they could tolerate a widely circulating virus as the price of reopening the economy, so long as only a small fraction of infected people ended up in the hospital.
The percentage of infected people who are later hospitalized is still much lower now than it was during the last peak of the pandemic in January, about 2 percent compared with 9 percent. But the National Health Service is already feeling the strain, and with fears of a virulent flu season, hospitals face the prospect of a double-whammy this winter.