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Can the UK avoid reimposing COVID restrictions after they’re lifted?

Written by on 13/07/2021

As the UK’s nations prepare to ease coronavirus restrictions, another European nation is reimposing curbs on its citizens.

The Dutch celebrated their “Freedom Day” two weeks ago only to find COVID-19 cases soaring to unprecedented levels.

The spike in case rates led the Dutch prime minister to concede that coronavirus restrictions had been lifted too soon.

While the epidemiological situation varies between two countries and direct comparisons are difficult, is there anything the UK could learn from the Dutch experience?

The daily infection rate in the Netherlands has risen 10 times in just two weeks, according to an analysis of the data.

The Dutch government blamed “nightlife settings and parties” for the increase. Data shows that more than half of all new cases were driven by people in the 20 to 29-year-old age group.

Epidemiologists say the trend is unsurprising as young people socialise more and are less likely to be protected by vaccines.

“We know these are the most mobile people, which in turn has led to an almost vertical growth in cases,” said Amrish Baidjoe, a field epidemiologist in the Netherlands.

In the UK, where more rules have been relaxed in fewer steps than the Netherlands, cases rates have similarly risen in younger age groups.

The rise in COVID-19 cases has been largely attributed to the Delta variant, which now accounts for nearly all cases sequenced in the UK.

The variant, which is more transmissible than the previous strain, is also on track to become the dominant strain in the Netherlands.

Scientists fear that although vaccines provide strong immunity to the disease, a large number of young people who remain either unvaccinated or partially vaccinated with one dose, are likely to get infected.

Early research published in medical journal, The Lancet, suggests the risk of being admitted to hospital with the Delta variant is around double that of the Alpha variant among the unvaccinated.

“We do know they [vaccines] protect very well against severe outcomes, but it’s not 100%,” said Mr Baidjoe, who is also an honorary assistant professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “Which means that if you have a lot of infections, even amongst those vaccinated, you will still have some people suffer severe outcomes.”

That trend is seen in the UK where weekly admissions have been steadily rising since May.

Immunologists say inadequate vaccine coverage among the young coupled with the sudden change in the lack of social distancing led to a spike in cases in the Netherlands.

“It is not just because of the Delta variant. It’s also because most of these young people were not fully vaccinated,” says Dr Dimitri Diavatopoulos, an immunologist at the Radboud Center for Infectious Diseases.

Dr Diavatopoulos added that many young people were infected before they had developed vaccine-induced immunity to the virus.

Immunity begins to gradually increase after 14 days from the first dose, according to World Health Organization (WHO).

A new report from Imperial College London shows that relaxing restrictions on 19 July will likely lead to substantial third wave of infections and hospitalisations despite the current levels of vaccine coverage.

However, the report also says that if people gradually stopped following social distancing rules, instead of suddenly changing their behaviour, then the next wave can be substantially reduced and delayed.

So what could we learn from the Dutch experience? A cautious approach to the reopening in the UK, unlike in the Netherlands where Mr Baidjoe suggests the government encouraged young people to go to nightclubs, could reduce the impact of a third wave.

He added: “The goal is not to suppress transmission completely. The goal is to suppress it to the level where we can reduce hospital admissions.”

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