While much of Europe struggles with a third wave of COVID-19 infections and a slow vaccination rollout, Britain has begun to ease lockdown restrictions as its immunization rate approaches 60 per cent of the adult population.
Golf courses, tennis courts and outdoor swimming pools reopened across England Monday, and people were allowed to gather outside in groups of six for the first time since Christmas. Recreational sports leagues also resumed, and the government is hoping that by summer limited numbers of soccer fans can return to stadiums. Wales introduced similar easing over the weekend, and Scotland and Northern Ireland plan to follow suit this week.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Monday that the government remains on track to lift more restrictions in mid-April and May, including allowing pubs and restaurants to reopen. If all goes well, the government plans to remove all lockdown measures by the end of June.
“More than anything I know how much it meant to millions of people to join someone else for a cup of tea in the garden,” Mr. Johnson said during a news conference. “I don’t see anything in the data right now that would cause us to deviate from the roadmap [to ease restrictions], but we’ve got to remain humble in the face of nature.”
Britain spent much of the winter in near-total lockdown as the country battled a more contagious variant of the virus that was first detected outside London last November. The number of infections, deaths and hospitalizations soared to the highest levels since the pandemic began, and there were fears the National Health Service could be overwhelmed.
The situation has markedly improved in recent weeks as the vaccination effort has gained pace. The number of COVID-19 cases across the U.K. has fallen to the lowest level in six months, while deaths and hospitalizations have also plummeted. So far, more than 30.4 million people, or about 57 per cent of the adult population, have received the first shot of the two-dose vaccines, and 3.7 million have received both.
There are concerns that the wave of infections that has surged across Europe in recent weeks could come crashing down on the U.K. Most European countries are struggling with the British variant, as well as one first detected in South Africa. Meanwhile, the European Union’s vaccination campaign has been slowed mainly by supply shortages.
Christ Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, said Monday that the main concern for the U.K. was the potential emergence of even stronger variants in Europe. “These are COVID variants which might, and I want to stress the word ‘might,’ have a problem with the vaccine, where the vaccine is less effective against them,” he told the news conference.
Mr. Johnson also stressed that health officials were still not entirely certain of the efficacy of the vaccines. “The vaccine rollout has been very impressive, and thanks to everybody who’s been involved in it, but what we don’t know is exactly how strong our fortifications now are, how robust our defences are against another wave,” he said.
While the vaccination drive has exceeded expectations, figures released Monday pointed to low immunization rates among some ethnic communities.
About 90 per cent of people over the age of 70 who identified as “White British” have been vaccinated, according to the Office for National Statistics. That compared with 59 per cent of “Black Africans” in that age group, 69 per cent of “Black Caribbeans” and 73 per cent of elderly people of Bangladeshi heritage. “Vaccination rates are markedly lower amongst certain groups, in particular amongst people identifying as Black African and Black Caribbean, those identifying as Muslim and disabled people,” said Ben Humberstone, an ONS statistician. “These differences remain after accounting for geography, underlying health conditions and certain indicators of socioeconomic inequality.”
Doug Brown, the chief executive of the British Society for Immunology, said the figures showed the U.K. can’t be complacent despite the success of the vaccination program. “We urgently need to engage with these groups to lessen any health inequalities that may be derived from lower vaccine uptake,” Dr. Brown said. “To build confidence in getting the COVID vaccine, we need to engage deeply with communities to earn their trust and answer their questions and concerns.”
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