Over the past few days there have been moves across Europe to forms of lockdown again. Some countries, most notably Austria have been implementing partial lockdowns with measures falling primarily on those who have not yet been vaccinated. This has raised questions about
- Whether or not it is ethical to single out the unvaccinated and in effect to detain them at home, discriminating against them as a means to enforce a de-facto compulsory vaccination programme.
- Whether or not the UK might come under pressure to follow suit and if so, how we should respond.
To answer those questions, it would help to start by looking at what is actually happening in terms of the data. Some people are talking about a 4th wave in Europe. So what does that look like.
First of all, in Austria we can see that case numbers have increased significantly and there also appears to be quite an ugly and ominous spike is deaths. Coupled with reports of intense pressure on hospitals this is concerning.
There’s a similar picture over in Croatia, Serbia, Hungary and Poland with cases, admissions and deaths all rising significantly.
Meanwhile, over in the Netherlands, cases have also increased exponentially and now dwarf the previous peaks this year.
However, notice that, as with the UK, whilst deaths have increased, proportionally at present they remain much lower than in previous waves
Meanwhile, in Germany, the picture looks as follows:
This is the situation in France with cases increasing but currently below previous peaks and not yet comparable to the German, Austrian and Dutch situations. France, like the UK had a significant wave of cases in the late summer.
Deaths continue to remain low
Finally for now, let’s have a look at Italy which was particularly badly hit in the first wave of COVID.
The picture looks similar to France at this stage with cases increasing, though now overtaking the summer hump and deaths continuing to be reasonably flat.
An immediate observation is that there seems to be a bit of variation in terms of what is happening across the countries. The Austrian situation is perhaps the most concerning with what looks initially like a higher death rate. Excluding that, the other countries seem to be mirroring what we’ve seen in the UK with some being closer to the Scottish experience of a sharp spike much higher than previous waves whilst others have seen a series of humps and cases higher over a sustained period but not yet matching previous peaks.
It is also worth observing that some countries have had a lower vaccine uptake than the UK or are further behind in terms of booster jabs. I understand that Austria has a significant proportion of people who are unvaccinated.
This perhaps helps us answer the questions. What we are seeing in some European countries is a response to a surge/spike in cases. Indeed, it is perhaps better to think of this less as a lockdown targeted at the vaccinated and more a lockdown with exemptions for those who have been vaccinated.
Now, in every lockdown seen throughout the western world we’ve tended to see partial restrictions with exemptions. Countries have decided that full lockdowns are not possible. So perhaps the question is “On what basis should people be exempt?” If people have been vaccinated then the risk of transmission among them is substantially reduced and they are less likely to suffer serious illness. There may be a case for encouraging them to continue as normal.
However, actually a prior question needs to be asked. Do those countries need lockdowns in the first place. And, if what we are seeing is in fact similar to what the UK has experienced through the Autumn then providing vaccine rates are high good and mortality remains proportionally low my gut instinct is that a very strong case would have to be made for countries like the Netherlands, Germany and France going into lockdown again.
For those reasons, I would have thought that the UK having already been through a similar wave without resorting to significant new restrictions -although Scotland and Wales have continued to require facemasks and brought in vaccine passports – is unlikely to implement new lockdowns, partial or otherwise.