booster jab
© Getty Images
For millions of Europeans, this was the week that dashed hopes of a Covid-free Christmas. Austrians will wake up tomorrow to a national lockdown, driven by rock-bottom vaccination rates. Covid cases across the continent are breaking records and unvaccinated people in some countries are being banned from public places.

"We don't know how this wave will wash up on our shores," said Boris Johnson last Monday, "but history shows we cannot be complacent."

The reality is that Britain never really left the previous wave: average case rates have not ducked below 25,000 a day since June. But as the year draws to a close, the déjà vu is hard to avoid. This time last year we were in a four-week national lockdown designed to "save Christmas" — only for it to be cancelled because of the Kent variant.

Austria protests
© FLORIAN SCHROETTER/AP
Protesters in Austria demonstrate against new measures to battle coronavirus after the government announced a nationwide lockdown
When Johnson was asked last week if he could guarantee a normal Christmas, he warned that a Covid "blizzard from the east" could disrupt our plans. Office parties and nativity plays are being cancelled, while Christmas shoppers started early, just in case.


Comment: "Could disrupt" means it probably will.


Yet England has not followed the tough measures seen on the continent. There are no plans for plan B — mandatory masks and vaccine passports, the "new normal" across Europe — to become plan A. As European Covid deaths mount, they are falling here, despite us having some of the most relaxed rules on the continent.


Comment: Interesting...


How long will this last? Will Britain avoid the worst of Europe's Covid surge?


Comment: If enough people get their boosters then there probably will be a surge.


Monday saw the biggest clue that we might be all right. A study by the UK Health Security Agency found that booster jabs are more than 93 per cent effective at stopping people catching the Delta variant.


Comment: That's a pretty bold statement, have they got the data to back that up that doesn't rely on irrelevant PCR tests and junk science?


europe's fourth covid wave
© Chart: The Times and The Sunday Times Source: Our World In Data
This changes the game. A third dose is not just a "top-up" — it completes the course, offering immunity levels that two jabs alone could not reach.


Comment: Temporarily completes the course that should read, until the next booster is required. Boris's first plan of letting the virus 'rip' through the public to gain herd immunity would've provided much stronger and longer-lasting immunity, but alas, he was 'spoken to' and changed course fairly quickly.


Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said: "The early signs are that the booster provides substantially greater protection against infection and symptomatic illness than any two-dose regime. That protection may still wane but it will last longer than we've seen for two doses."


Comment: At what cost to your overall health?


The "booster effect" is starting to show, and may be helping the latest fall in admissions: the number of new Covid patients aged 85 and over has fallen 28 per cent in the past two weeks, faster than in younger adults.


Comment: The author makes no mention of the 10,000 excess deaths that are not related to COVID.


Problems with access meant the booster programme had a slow start but, internationally, we are vaccinating faster than our neighbours. More than 21 per cent of people have had a third dose — including about 80 per cent of over-70s — compared with 6 per cent across the EU.


As well as a healthy supply of jabs, this is largely because so many people are eligible. Booster jabs must be given five or six months after the second dose: six months ago, 31 per cent of British people had been fully vaccinated, compared with just 14 per cent of EU nationals.


Comment: According to updated guidelines the government has reduced the UK's minimum gap for Covid booster jabs to three months thanks to the Megatron omicron variant.


covid vaccination graph uk
© Chart: The Times and The Sunday Times Source: Paul Mainwood, UKHSA
Boosters have been needed to counter waning vaccine immunity. The first warning signs came from Israel, which jabbed most of its population last winter, but still experienced a fourth wave in the summer. The country administered two doses of Pfizer three weeks apart, compared with the 12-week interval here. Studies later found that leaving a longer gap ultimately leads to higher antibody levels.


Comment: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." - Albert Einstein.


Many European countries, arriving slightly later to the vaccine party, will have lots of people whose immunity is waning but are not yet eligible for boosters.

Vaccines may be the single biggest factor determining our fate this winter — but it is not the only one. Graham Medley chairs the government's Sage pandemic modelling committee and said the size of the winter Covid wave would come down to five factors. After vaccination, he says that reducing transmission is crucial. "This means testing frequently, especially before and after events with multiple people. Third, if you test positive, then stay isolated, and [fourth] tell others that you have been with them so they can test or isolate themselves as well." Data from the Office for National Statistics suggests that 91 per cent of people took a Covid test after being contacted by NHS Test and Trace or the app — but that is likely to be an overestimate.


vaccine uk booster britain
© Chart: The Times and The Sunday Times Source: Our World In Data
Medley's final factor is protecting older and more vulnerable people by ensuring those carrying the virus avoid them.

Many scientists are cautiously optimistic but we are not out of the woods yet. Oliver Johnson, professor of statistics at Bristol University, has amassed nearly 40,000 Twitter followers for his pandemic charts. "I wouldn't like to make predictions about how likely plan B [or stricter measures still] are because we've seen from elsewhere in Europe how fast things can rise — and really cold winter weather hasn't got going in the UK yet."


Comment: Just because he has 40k followers on Twitter and is a professor doesn't mean we should listen to him. Does anyone remember Neil Ferguson?


Professor Devi Sridhar, Nicola Sturgeon's coronavirus adviser, has been a long-term critic of the UK government's pandemic decision — but concedes: "We're in a far better position than last year, if we use our vaccines, testing and simple measures like masks and distancing when possible."

Hunter is even more positive. "With high certainty we will see significant further falls in both deaths and hospitalisations." He also suggests that Britain's policy of allowing Covid to circulate over the summer may have led to high levels of immunity among children.

economy vs covid
© Chart: The Times and The Sunday Times Source: Kekst CNC
Professor Susan Michie a member of Sage, agreed and said: "I think it's more difficult to predict than at any time up until now." The NHS, she pointed out, did not have much wiggle room, with care shortages leading to delays in discharging patients; this in turn means ambulances are facing lengthy delays in dropping patients off at A&E. "The key thing the government has wanted to avoid all the way along was the NHS not being able to cope — and the NHS is clearly struggling now."


Comment: Is that because they have lost staff members due to the vaccine mandates? Or is it because of the backlog of health problems that they are having to treat thanks to covid shutdowns?


Another worry is seasonal flu, which was virtually wiped out for 18 months. Flu levels are just a quarter of those seen two years ago but could still surge late in winter.

Michie is calling for plan B measures, as well as better ventilation.

Perhaps the real question is: has Britain made up its mind? For all the talk of "following the data", Covid curbs are political decisions. And there is growing evidence that tougher Covid rules would not sit comfortably with the public.


Comment: Finally one truthful statement in the whole article, covid curbs ARE political decisions.


At the start of the pandemic just 13 per cent of people would rather protect the economy than limit the spread of the virus. By last week that was 36 per cent.

At the same time, the number wanting to limit the spread has fallen from 74 per cent to 42 per cent. Despite weeks of headlines of NHS pressures, the gap between the two has shrunk since September.


Comment: Are people getting sick of the propaganda and fearmongering that they see every week in the mainstream media?


"As Europe brings in Covid restrictions and some argue for the UK to follow, the British public are responding with something of a shrug and are broadly content with the status quo," said James Johnson, who carried out the polling for Kekst CNC.

If Johnson did decide to introduce plan B, it might not be unpopular: 58 per cent would support banning unvaccinated people from bars, restaurants and other public venues unless they had a negative test. Yet Britain would draw the line at Austria-style measures, with just 33 per cent wanting to lock down the unjabbed.

Amid rising European rates, the British public remains optimistic: 48 per cent expect the NHS to cope well this winter, compared with 41 per cent who say it will do badly. That could change if admissions surge — but with each booster shot, a winter of discontent becomes less likely.