Britons are taking fewer precautions towards Covid-19 than at any point during the pandemic, according to the latest polling data, as unease grows among government science advisers about a rising wave of infections and hospital admissions prompted by the Omicron BA.2 offshoot.
When Omicron hit late last year, Britons began to exercise greater caution towards social gatherings, public transport use and office working, reversing 10 months of waning carefulness after a two-month lockdown at the start of 2021.
Since the new year, however, behavioral caution has begun to dip again, falling to a pandemic low in the second week of March following the government’s decision to end all legal restrictions in England and the easing of Covid curbs in the other nations.
“We have seen a lot of the restrictions go but more importantly a change in people’s attitudes,” said Prof Mike Tildesley, a member of the government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modeling. “If you see the virus as less of an imminent threat, you’re more likely to mix with others and in the short-term at least that gives Omicron a second wind.”
The drift back towards normal behavior has combined with the rise of the even more infectious Omicron BA.2 offshoot to give rise to a spring resurgence in Covid across the UK, according to experts.
More than half of Britons are not regularly avoiding crowded spaces for the first time during the pandemic, according to the latest round of polling carried out by YouGov and Imperial College London, published late on Tuesday. Only 31 per cent of those polled are still avoiding indoor mixing with other households, compared with 63 per cent at the height of the Omicron wave, while only 12 per cent are now typically working remotely.
“Changes in mask-wearing behavior, frequency of testing, and overall cautiousness are. . . as much about people responding to the large Omicron wave having ended, and the fact that circulating variants are much less dangerous, as it is about changes in the law, ”said Nick Davies, an epidemiological modeller at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine . He said the way the timeline of relaxation had “lined up” with BA.2’s spread was driving the surge.
As of March 15, 14,078 Covid patients were in UK hospitals and the figure was rising in all regions, apart from Northern Ireland. English hospitals have recorded a 31 per cent rise in Covid patients in the last fortnight, with the south-west region being worst hit.
In Scotland, the number of Covid patients has more than doubled in the last month: there are now 1,999 Covid-positive patients in hospital, just below the all-time high of 2,053 in January 2021. However, much of the increase so far has been driven by patients being treated primarily for other illnesses, having tested positive for Covid incidentally upon admission.
In the week to March 16, 516,289 Covid cases were recorded across the UK, the highest level since early February and an increase of 49 per cent on a week earlier.
“This is a glimpse of what returning to the pre-pandemic normal looks like and it doesn’t look great,” said Prof John Edmunds, a member of the government’s Sage advisory group. He argued that predictions of a “lull” in the pandemic after spring “may have been misplaced” because of the emergence of BA.2, adding: “My hunch is we’re heading for sustained, high prevalence and fairly constant pressure on the NHS. “
By March 5, Omicron BA.2 accounted for more than three-fifths of all Covid infections in England and Scotland, according to the Office for National Statistics, while in Northern Ireland the Omicron offshoot made up nearly four-fifths of cases.
But Adam Kucharski, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the surging across the UK was “by no means unique”. “It’s striking the consistency in all the rises in Europe,” he said, adding that an “obvious candidate” for the simultaneous surges was BA.2, which is 30 per cent more transmissible than the original Omicron.
“It’s unlikely we get into the territory where there’s enormous pressure, instead we’ll just see a prolonged plateau in a number of countries,” he said, adding that because of waning immunity “that plateau might end up being higher than a lot of countries would like “.
However, experts warned that England may be in a worse place than other UK nations and its European peers to respond to the BA.2 wave after ending legally-enforced self-isolation in late February and stopping free mass testing from April 1 as part of the government’s “Living with Covid” plan.
“The government has got itself into a bit of a bind as once again it’s painted the easing of restrictions as a sign of victory – which it may need to row back on,” said Professor Ravi Gupta, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group. “The government needs a plan for managing the virus, not ignoring it.”
Gupta said the wave added urgency to the spring booster campaign for over-75s and vulnerable groups and the rollout of vaccines to healthy 5- to 11-year-olds, both due to start in April.
He said that not starting the vaccine campaign for younger children earlier was a “huge omission” on the part of the government as it would have cut the chances of BA.2 spreading in that age group.
Health authorities should also be “open-minded” about widening the fourth dose campaign to other older groups, according to Gupta.
“If your strategy is to rely almost entirely on vaccination, you should do as much as possible to vaccinate as widely as possibly,” he said.