There were more than 50,000 infections recorded

On July 19, Britons celebrated as England marked “Freedom Day,” seeing a near-full lifting of Covid-19 restrictions. Covid-related hospitalizations and deaths were relatively low, even if cases continued to rise, and the country’s vaccination rollout was largely lauded as a success internationally.

On Thursday, there were more than 50,000 infections recorded in the U.K. in a single day — the highest daily count since mid-July and a higher number than reported in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal combined. The country also saw 115 deaths, with Tuesday marking a daily death toll of 223 people — the highest since March.

Meanwhile, 1 in 55 people in England were estimated to have had Covid in the week up to Oct. 16, according to the U.K. Office for National Statistics, which means as many as 1 million people may have been infected with the virus that week alone.

The rising deaths, spiraling infection rates and overstretched public health system have prompted calls for the government to reassess the lifting of lockdown and containment measures.

“I think that everyone feels concerned as to what might happen over winter,” said Dr. Layla McCay, policy director of the National Health Service Confederation, which represents the health care system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. “It is better to act now than to regret it later.”

Experts said there are a range of factors driving Britain’s current surge. As the pandemic nears the two-year mark, they are closely monitoring the country’s response to rising cases and whether the U.K. is a warning sign for the rest of the world.

NBC News investigated the cocktail of factors driving Britain’s surge and the lessons that can be gleaned from the country’s experience.

Waning vaccines
Britain was one of the first countries to start vaccinating its population, so Britons enjoyed a return to so-called normal life earlier than most.

But now, there are fears that the immunity gained from Covid vaccinations is starting to wane as the delta variant — which has accounted for approximately 99.8 percent of sequenced cases in England, according to a recent government report — as well as a mutation of the variant known as “delta plus” continue to spread.

“Those deaths are not inevitable. They’re preventable.”

DR. DEEPTI GURDASANI, CLINICAL EPIDEMIOLOGIST AT QUEEN MARY UNIVERSITY OF LONDON

In addition, the government delayed vaccinating secondary school students, which likely has had a big impact on the virus’s spread, according to Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology at Imperial College London.

“I think we paid a very high price for our reticence and delay in vaccinating secondary school children and lost probably a few months on that,” he said.

Recent figures released by the Office for National Statistics showed that 1 in 14 secondary school-age children had tested positive for Covid in the week ending Oct. 2.
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Because the U.K. rolled out its vaccination program earlier than the rest of Europe, that could also mean protection is waning sooner, especially among older recipients, Altmann added.

“We all assumed that these vaccines would be good and keep us safe for a good year or two, and that possibly would have been true if delta hadn’t come along,” he said.

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