For now, life in Britain can feel unusually normal — even festive, as many embrace the holiday season with renewed enthusiasm. But it is a new, more constrained normal.
Visitors from countries where restrictions are still in place are sometimes taken aback by Britain’s voluntary, variable approach to mask use and social distancing.
But Ivo Vlaev, a behavioral scientist at the University of Warwick who has studied data from across Europe, says people in the U.K. have largely stuck to protective measures — including limiting their contacts with others — even when they were no longer required by law. Movement data suggests Britons still travel and mix less than before the pandemic.
“It seems to be the case that in U.K. people are more compliant in general across all health-protective behaviors” than in some other European nations, Vaev said.Partly, he says, the reason is “fear — we actually are quite afraid to go out and do the usual stuff” after Britain’s harsh pandemic experience.
While some European countries are turning to compulsion to get more people vaccinated, the U.K. is sticking with persuasion. Britain does not widely require proof of vaccination attend events or workplaces, and the government has ruled out mandating vaccines for everyone, though health and social care workers have been ordered to get shots.
Britain hasn’t seen as much resistance to the vaccine as many other countries, and about 88% of people aged 12 and up have had at least one dose. But only about 68% of the whole population is fully vaccinated, a lower figure than in some other European nations, partly because the U.K. was slower than many of its neighbors to offer shots to children aged 12 to 15, and has not yet approved vaccines for younger kids.
The government’s focus is on giving booster doses to those most vulnerable to serious illness, offering a third shot to everyone 40 and up six months after their second.
“Get your booster as soon as you can,” the prime minister said this week. “Because it is by vaccinating our country that we have been able to get your staff back to their place of work, to open our theaters, our restaurants and get back for longer now than any comparator country, to something like normal life.”
Some public health specialists and opposition politicians say the government is relying too much on vaccination to keep the virus at bay. They want the return of mandatory masks, social distancing and other measures.
But some epidemiologists are cautiously optimistic that enough is being done to keep a lid on the virus over the winter. Perhaps ironically, Hunter says Britain’s heavy coronavirus toll puts it in a stronger position than those countries where the virus is now surging.
“They’ve got populations that are not as well immunized, whether that is from vaccine or infection, as we have,” he said. “We still have a lot more immunity from natural infection than most European countries, and we’re rolling out the booster. That is why we will have less of a troublesome winter than most.”