UK Government Urges Citizens Get COVID Booster Shot as Cases Surge to Over 49K

The U.K. government on Wednesday encouraged millions of residents to get booster shots of COVID-19 vaccines in the midst of rising infection rates, the Associated Press reported.

The government's plea came as officials continue to resist reinstating health restrictions, like mandatory masking, and cases topped 49,000 in Britain on Wednesday.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said during a news conference that Britain's government will "stay vigilant, preparing for all eventualities," but does not yet plan to enact Plan B and reimpose the restrictions. Since rescinding the rules, the U.K. has largely looked to COVID-19 vaccines as its main avenue of protection from the virus.

Nearly 80 percent of residents age 12 and above are fully vaccinated, and millions of people, including those 50 and older, are now eligible to receive a third shot. But some said that the speed of booster shot rollout can't match the speed of the virus' spread, especially as infections average 45,000 per day, AP reported.

Javid acknowledged that daily infections "could go as high as 100,000 a day" but said that the government was still not ready to reimpose restrictions.

"None of us want to go backwards now," he said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid
U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid said during a news conference that Britain’s government will “stay vigilant, preparing for all eventualities” but does not yet plan to enact Plan B and reimpose COVID-19 restrictions. Above, Javid speaks during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on October 20, 2021. Toby Melville/Pool Photo via AP

But Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the health care group the NHS Confederation, said Britain's health service risked being overwhelmed unless more measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 were introduced.

"It is time for the government to enact Plan B of its strategy without delay, because without preemptive action, we risk stumbling into a winter crisis," he said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative government lifted domestic coronavirus restrictions in July, including mandatory face coverings and social distancing. Nightclubs and other crowded venues were allowed to open at full capacity and people were no longer advised to work from home.

Infections remained stubbornly high after the reopening and recently have begun to increase—especially among children, who largely remain unvaccinated.

Hospitalizations and deaths are gradually rising, with deaths averaging 136 a day over the past week. Britain has recorded more than 138,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest total in Europe after Russia.

Against that backdrop, some feel that Britons have been too quick to return to pre-pandemic behavior. Masks and social distancing have all but vanished in most settings in England, although Scotland and other parts of the U.K. remain more strict. Even in shops, where masks are recommended, and on the London transit network, where they are mandatory, adherence is patchy.

A plan to require proof of vaccination to attend nightclubs, concerts and other mass events in England was dropped amid opposition from lawmakers, though Scotland introduced a vaccine pass program this month.

Critics say the vaccination program—among the world's speediest earlier this year—is moving too slowly. More than 4 million people in Britain have had a booster, although about half of those eligible have yet to receive their shot.

The U.K. also waited longer than the U.S. and other European nations to vaccinate children from 12 to 15, and only about 15 percent in that age group in England have had a shot.

The government says it will act to boost vaccination rates, with a new ad campaign and more sites where kids can receive their shots.

"We've got plenty of vaccines and we just need people to come forward and play their part," Javid said.

He also said the government had bought two antiviral drugs to prevent coronavirus infections or lesson the severity of disease—one by Pfizer and the other by Merck Sharp & Dohme. Neither has yet been approved by Britain's medicines regulator, but Javid said he hoped they would be in use by the winter.

Javid renewed calls for people to wear masks in crowded places and keep their distance from others, although critics say such calls need to be backed by law.

The Unite union, which represents workers in areas including hospitality and transport, said "customers are becoming increasingly abusive" when asked to don masks.

"The government can no longer pretend that COVID-19 is not a risk, and needs to take immediate action to protect key workers and passengers," said the union's national officer for passenger transport, Bobby Morton.

"The reintroduction of mask-wearing must go hand-in-hand with the proper enforcement of such rules," he said.

U.K. COVID Surge
The U.K. government on Wednesday encouraged millions of residents to get booster shots of COVID-19 vaccines in the midst of rising infection rates. Above, people wearing face masks to curb the spread of coronavirus walk along the Oxford Street shopping area of central London on October 20, 2021. Matt Dunham/AP Photo