Covid variant spread rapidly in Britain even during lockdown
The COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom is part of the worldwide pandemic of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The virus reached the country in late January 2020. As of 10 January 2021, there have been 3,072,349 confirmed cases and 81,431 deaths, the world’s eighth-highest death rate per hundred thousand population and the highest number overall in Europe. There were 85,792 deaths where the death certificate mentioned COVID-19 by 25 December (see Statistics). More than 90% of those dying had underlying illnesses or were over 60 years old. There has been some disparity between the outbreak’s severity in each of the four nations. Health in the United Kingdom is a devolved matter, with England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales each having their own systems of publicly funded healthcare, separate governments and parliaments, together with smaller private sector and voluntary provision.
On 22 February, in Scotland, COVID-19 became a “notifiable disease”, and a surveillance network involving 41 GP locations was established to submit samples of suspected patients, even if they had no travel history. The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) for England launched a public health information campaign to help slow the virus’s spread, and began posting daily updates in early February. The HSC began testing for COVID-19 during February 2020, as of 19 February there were 35 completed tests all of which returned negative results. Also in February, the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, introduced the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 for England, and hospitals set up drive-through screening. The Chief Medical Officer for England, Chris Whitty, outlined a four-pronged strategy, relevant to England, to tackle the outbreak: contain, delay, research and mitigate. In Wales, the Chief Medical Officer, Frank Atherton, said that the Government would be taking “all appropriate measures” to reduce the risk of transmission.
In March, the UK governments imposed a stay-at-home order, dubbed “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives”, banning all non-essential travel and closing most gathering places. Those with symptoms, and their households, were told to self-isolate, while those with certain illnesses were told to shield themselves. People were told to keep apart in public. Police were empowered to enforce the measures, and the Coronavirus Act 2020 gave all four governments emergency powers not used since the Second World War. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak forecast that lengthy restrictions would severely damage the UK economy, worsen mental health and suicide rates, and cause additional deaths due to isolation, delays and falling living standards.
All four national health services worked to raise hospital capacity and set up temporary critical care hospitals, including the NHS Nightingale Hospitals. By mid-April it was reported that social distancing had “flattened the curve” of the epidemic. In late April, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the UK had passed the peak of its outbreak. Daily cases and deaths slowly declined in May and June, and continued at a relatively low level in July and August. The total number of excess deaths in the UK from the start of the outbreak to mid-June was just over 65,000.
Cases rose significantly from late August onwards (by a factor of 3.2 from 15 August to 15 September). From October onwards, varying levels of lockdown were imposed in England, including in many areas a complete ban on households mixing at Christmas, in tandem with the discovery of a variant of concern which was blamed by Hancock for the rise in cases in the South East and precipitated further suspensions of international travel from the UK. A similar system was introduced in Scotland. Circuit breaker lockdowns took place in Wales and Northern Ireland. In December, the UK became the first country to authorise and begin use of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine (tozinameran).