Is Europe’s fourth wave of Covid-19 going to hit the UK?

Severe Covid-19 restrictions are being imposed across Europe in a bid to curb a fourth wave of the virus that is sweeping the continent. 

As Europe finds itself “once again the epicentre of the pandemic”, Germany, Austria and Slovakia have reintroduced restrictions amid rising infections and approaching winter, said Sky News

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Europe was the “only region in the world where Covid-related deaths increased last week” as the continent saw a rise of 5%.

What precautions is Europe taking?

Millions of unvaccinated people in Austria were sent into lockdown last week as the country “grapples with one of the highest infection rates in Europe”, said The Independent.

All those aged over 12 who have not been vaccinated against the virus or have recently contracted the illness are now banned from leaving their homes unless it is to go to work, go shopping or go for a walk.

In Germany, there have been similar curbs to public life as outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that the fourth wave of Covid-19 is hitting the country with “full force”, Euronews reported.

On Thursday it was announced that that access to cultural and sports events, as well as restaurants, will be restricted to those who have been vaccinated against or recovered from Covid in places where there are high Covid-related hospitalisation rates. 

Similar restrictions have also been put into place in Greece, while a partial lockdown came into force in the Netherlands over the weekend, prompting a wave of protests.

What is driving the fourth wave?

According to experts, there are a number of factors, including “low vaccine uptake, waning immunity among people inoculated early, and growing complacency about masks and distancing after governments relaxed curbs over the summer”, said The Guardian

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“The message has always been: do it all,” Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director for Europe, said last week. “Vaccines are doing what was promised: preventing severe forms of the disease, and especially mortality. But they are our most powerful asset only if used alongside preventive measures.”

Europe’s fourth wave started in September in eastern Europe, “where vaccine rates in many countries are spectacularly poor and few, if any, restrictions were in place”, said The Telegraph.

Vaccine scepticism in the region has its roots in the “legacy of communism”, which has “eroded trust in the state”, said the paper.

In Germanic countries, however, the widespread influence of the “lebensreform” moment, which believes in a “natural” path to healing the body, is thought to have “slowed vaccine take-up in some areas”.

And resistance to taking the vaccine may have a political element too. German regions such as Saxony, a “bastion of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland” party, is languishing behind the rest of the country in terms of vaccination take-up, said The Guardian. 

Austria’s far-right Freedom Party has “also endorsed anti-vaxxer views with even more enthusiasm”, said the paper.

Will the UK be hit?

The UK’s basic vaccination rate is “not significantly higher than those of Austria and Germany”, said The Times. Britain has doubly immunised “68 per cent of its population, compared to 68 per cent in Germany and 65 per cent in Austria, which has the joint-lowest coverage in western Europe alongside Switzerland”, the paper reported. 

But there are “two notable differences” in the UK’s approach, continued the paper. First, the UK’s roll-out of booster doses. As of Wednesday, the UK had administered “20.4 booster doses for every 100 people”, which is “twice the level in Austria and nearly four times as high as in Germany”.

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The second factor is the speed of the UK’s vaccination campaign, which “gathered momentum much earlier than those in mainland Europe”. The UK, therefore, had its wave of infections “under relatively favourable circumstances in the late summer, as immunity levels began to wane among people who had been fully vaccinated five or six months earlier”. Northern and central Europe are only hitting this phase now as the winter hits, “facilitating transmission of the virus”.

“We are not behind Europe in this wave: they are behind us,” Professor Paul Hunter of the University of East Anglia told The Observer. 

“We are not currently seeing a surge of the same magnitude as Europe at present largely because of the high case numbers over recent months, which most of Europe missed out on. The key exception is Romania, which has just had a large peak and which is now seeing a decline.”

The behaviour of the virus is “typical of an epidemic infection as it becomes endemic”, the professor told the paper. 

“As a disease approaches its endemic equilibrium you get oscillations around the eventual equilibrium. So we can probably expect oscillations across Europe for a year or so yet. Sometimes the UK will be worse than Europe: at other times Europe will be worse than us.”

Most experts seem to agree that the UK will be able to stave off a significant new wave, said The Telegraph, and that is “only likely to change if a new variant of Covid or an epidemic of flu were to suddenly start to overwhelm hospitals”.

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