Activists protest coronavirus lockdown restrictions in London, England on December 14, 2020.
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LONDON – When the UK’s first coronavirus lockdown was imposed exactly a year ago, most would have struggled to imagine that after 12 months there would still be restrictions on public and private life.
With this now a reality, there are growing signs that the UK public is becoming increasingly frustrated by the pressures and protests against the lockdown hit the capital over the weekend.
Although the UK has put in place a roadmap for lifting restrictions, with the government aiming to relax most of the Covid curbs by June 21, there have been smoke signals in recent days that the government is not expecting normal life is resumed even then.
Government ministers and health experts who advise them have made a number of comments suggesting that summer holidays are now “highly unlikely” given the situation in other parts of Europe where coronavirus cases are on the rise due to new variants of the virus.
Another health expert – the head of immunization at Public Health England – suggested Sunday that masks and social distancing measures could be required for several years.
The government has also signaled that it intends to expand its powers to reverse any easing of measures, and thanks to support from the opposition Labor Party, approval to extend the emergency powers is expected by October, despite a group of lawmakers within the ruling Conservative Party Describe the move as “authoritarian”.
Combine these factors and a summer of freedom for the British public seems less likely, possibly creating the conditions for more public discontent as the British are desperate to return to “normalcy”. Especially since the vaccine rollout is advancing at a rapid pace; A record-breaking 844,285 first and second doses were given to those waiting to be shot on Saturday, up from 711,157 people who received a vaccine dose on Friday.
The toll on Great Britain in numbers
March 23rd marks the first anniversary of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement to the UK public that the country will go into a lockdown. The government has taken unprecedented measures in peacetime to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which first appeared at the time. The Chinese city of Wuhan was largely unknown in December 2019.
Then by the time Johnson made the first stay-at-home announcement that citizens are now used to, the UK had reported a daily surge in the number of deaths from the virus, with 335 deaths within 24 hours in hospitals and health workers, that deals with understanding Covid-19 and effective treatments.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a televised press conference at 10 Downing Street on February 22, 2021 in London, England.
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A year fast forward, and the UK is in the shameful position of having the fifth highest number of coronavirus cases in the world after the US, Brazil, India and Russia, according to a record by Johns Hopkins University. To date, the UK has reported over 4.3 million infections and over 126,000 deaths – the fifth highest number of deaths in the world after the US, Brazil, Mexico and India.
A minute’s silence will be observed in the UK on Tuesday to ponder the deaths caused by the virus.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement that “the past 12 months have taken a tremendous toll on all of us and I extend my condolences to those who have lost loved ones.” He added that the country “showed great spirit that our nation showed over the past year”.
The reasons for the higher death toll in the UK compared to continental fatalities in mainland Europe are many. However, underlying factors include higher obesity rates, pre-existing health conditions, and socio-economic factors.
What went wrong or right?
For its part, the government has been heavily criticized for late locking, failing to perform border controls and controls on incoming travelers to the UK, not adequately protecting healthcare workers and running an inadequate testing and tracing system, still viewed as below average. Overall, it has been accused of not being prepared for a pandemic and of poorly managing it upon arrival.
A ray of hope and a salvation has been the highly respected British scientific community that has been at the forefront of research into the virus, its effects and attempts to find the best way to combat it. In June 2020, for example, British health experts led by Oxford University found that an inexpensive steroid treatment, dexamethasone, can significantly reduce the risk of death in seriously ill Covid patients.
An even bigger breakthrough came when Oxford University and the Anglo-Swedish drug AstraZeneca successfully developed and tested one of the few effective vaccines. The development of the shot was all the more remarkable given that vaccines can take years to develop. UK vaccine research also received government funding.
The UK became the first country in the world to approve and use the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine in early December and has quickly embarked on a national vaccination program that has gained momentum.
In January, the AstraZeneca vaccine was added to the arsenal and the vaccination program grew stronger, surprising even the most cynical Britons and winning the country’s health experts and the praise of the National Health Service for courageous decision-making and a well-managed roll-out.
Unlike other countries in Europe which falsely questioned the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca vaccine in those over 65, the UK has had mass vaccination programs giving priority to the elderly and healthcare workers.
Health experts also believed (criticized at the time but now repeated in other countries) that the gap between the first and second dose of the coronavirus vaccines used should be extended to up to 12 weeks in order to provide more people with more initial protection .
Margaret Keenan, 90, is the first patient in the UK to receive the Pfizer / BioNtech covid-19 vaccine at University Hospital in Coventry.
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The decision was confirmed by later clinical data showing that the strategy was effective and even increased the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The rollout exceeded expectations. As of March 20, over 27.6 million UK adults had received a first dose of vaccine and over 2.2 million had received their second shot, according to government figures.
There is palpable unrest among members of the public – especially those who are primarily against a lockdown – as well as in the business community so that society can reopen. Anti-lockdown protests in London last weekend attracted several thousand protesters saying “Freedom!” as they marched through the capital. Later brawls between police and protesters resulted in over 30 arrests.
Protesters carry a sign reading “The Cure Is Worse Than The Sickness” as they march during a World Wide Rally For Freedom protest on March 20, 2021 in London, England.
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What happens next?
So when it comes to the vaccine, it was a case of “so far, so good”. The number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths has steadily decreased in the UK.
The speed of the rollout was seen as critical at a time when new variants of the virus have emerged and could potentially undermine the positive effects of the vaccines.
Mainland Europe is seeing the consequences of its possibly understandably slower introduction, as the EU ordered vaccines as a block and, above all, ordered later than the UK and the US
In addition to slower supply and production problems, the EU has had to grapple with the UK’s non-prevalent vaccine reluctance and bureaucracy, which is also not that big of a problem in the UK, where the healthcare system is largely integrated -up and well-connected central system.
However, this week the UK faces a potential challenge to its rollout if EU leaders, practically meeting on Thursday, decide to block exports of block-made Covid vaccines to countries like the UK, which are in their Vaccination programs are further ahead.
Johnson has reportedly tried to stop such a move by speaking to his colleagues in France and Germany over the weekend. However, if the EU steps forward, the UK could face further supply shortages. A supply bottleneck is already expected due to a reported delay in exports from an Indian production facility.
Delays could cost the UK the hitherto successful rollout and citizens their freedoms, despite the government’s announcement to offer all adults a first dose of a vaccine by July 31st.