By Alistair Smout
LONDON -Britain's hospitals are close to be being overwhelmed by a new wave of COVID-19 infections so tougher restrictions are needed, the health service's lobby group said on Wednesday, but the government said now was not the time for a new lockdown.
Britain has the eighth biggest death toll globally from COVID-19, with nearly 139,000 fatalities. But it also had a quick start to its vaccine programme and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has lifted almost all COVID-19 restrictions in England and ended social distancing measures.
Johnson has repeatedly said Britain's early success with vaccinations meant that England will navigate a bumpy winter without needing a new lockdown, having previously shut down the economy three times.
But doctors have expressed concern that an increase in numbers going into hospital, combined with pressures on the NHS from seasonal viruses, could leave hospitals unable to deal with long waiting lists and function normally.
Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation, called for measures that Johnson is holding in reserve such as mask-wearing and working from home, which would only be minor inconveniences and could avoid stumbling into a crisis.
"I talk to health leaders every day, and I have literally not spoken to any leader who doesn't say that their service is under intense pressure now. This is the middle of October. Things are only going to get worse," Taylor told BBC radio.
"The health service is right at the edge... if you push much further we will not be able to provide the level of service that people need to have."
Business minister Kwasi Kwarteng said another lockdown would be wrong and also played down the prospect that more limited measures would be brought in soon.
"Ministers, scientists, experts are looking at data on an hourly basis," he told the BBC. "And we don't feel that it's the time for Plan B right now."
A parliamentary report into Britain's response in the early stages of the pandemic said last week that delaying a lockdown and other failures had caused thousands of avoidable deaths.
Britain reported 223 new deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday, the highest daily figure since March, and cases are the highest in Europe.
Johnson's government has said that it is relying on vaccinations, including booster shots for the vulnerable, to avoid lockdowns this winter.
But the vaccine rollout has stalled, slipping behind several European countries. Britain's quick start with vaccines also mean that immunity could be waning in those vaccinated first, and scientists are urging for the pace of booster shots to increase.
Andrew Pollard, the head of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said the risk was mainly in the unvaccinated.
"(Boosters) may have some least initial downward pressure on the transmission that we're seeing at the moment," he told BBC radio.
"But...the biggest issue for intensive care is not the highly vaccinated individuals, it remains the unvaccinated."
He added that a subvariant of Delta that is growing in England was unlikely to change the picture.
(Reporting by Alistair Smout, additional reporting by Andy Bruce; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Angus MacSwan)