The Department of Health and Social Care recorded another 43,738 cases of the coronavirus on Tuesday as well as 223 deaths within 28 days of testing positive for the respiratory disease, the highest casualty rate since 9 March before the vaccine bounce began to take effect.
That case total was down slightly on the 49,156 reported on Monday but the number of infections has been consistently above 40,000 for the past week, placing the UK on the frontline of the global fightback against the pandemic once again.
The government’s “Plan A” - namely, offering vaccine booster jabs to 30m people identified as vulnerable - appears not to be working, with Sir David King, chief scientific to Tony Blair’s government between 2000 and 2007, telling Sky News the rollout had been carried out “extremely slowly” and that the total of 3.1m people it had reached so far was insufficient.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday morning, Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London also sounded the alarm by warning that immunity in the UK appears to be “waning” because of the country’s early success in rolling out the vaccination scheme, which began in December 2020.
“People need to be aware that we currently have higher levels of infection in the community than we’ve almost ever had during the pandemic,” Professor Ferguson said.
Also responding to the increasingly alarming state of play was Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS confederation, who called for the urgent imposition of a “Plan B” ordering a revival of measures like mask wearing, working from home and vaccine passports in order to stop the spread.
“We are right on the edge - and it is the middle of October,” he said. “It would require an incredible amount of luck for us not to find ourselves in the midst of a profound crisis over the next three months.
“The government ought to not just announce that we’re moving to Plan B, but it should be Plan B plus. We should do what’s in Plan B in terms of masks... working from home, but also we should try to achieve the kind of national mobilisation that we achieved in the first and second waves, where the public went out of their way to support and help the health service.”
Downing Street has so far said it is keeping a “very close eye” on the situation and acknowledged that there are signs that the number of hospital admissions and deaths are also rising but said it currently has “absolutely no plan” to reintroduce restrictions, the last of which were waived on “Freedom Day” on 19 July.
The prime minister has reportedly told his Cabinet that he believes their current coronavirus plan is keeping the virus under control while reiterating that he and his ministers “must put all our energies into our vaccination programmes”.
“I think the conversation about restrictions on travel, restrictions on more lockdowns is completely unhelpful,” he added. “We don’t want to go back into lockdown and further restrictions.”
A No 10 spokesman reiterated that stance on Wednesday lunchtime, saying: “There isn’t any proposed plan for any further lockdowns. We are sticking to the autumn and winter plan we have set out.”
However, it was previously reported in early September that the government did have plans drawn up in case a future “firebreak” lockdown became necessary due to rising cases, with an official stressing at the time that this was merely a contingency plan centred around the reintroduction of restrictions and that any new lockdown would only be imposed as a “last resort”.
Health secretary Sajid Javid is due to give a rare press conference to address the nation’s growing concerns on Wednesday evening, itself a sign, whatever he actually has to say, that the government at least recognises the seriousness of public concern surrounding the high infection rate.