While Canada and other countries grapple with the third wave of the pandemic, Britain has hit a milestone in its vaccination program earlier than expected, allowing the government to ease more lockdown restrictions.
The government announced Tuesday that all adults over the age of 50 have been offered a vaccine, two days ahead of schedule. So far, the National Health Service has administered more than 32.2 million first doses and almost eight million second doses of vaccine – one of the highest vaccination rates in the world.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said vaccines will now be offered to people between the ages of 45 and 49 and added that the government was on track to vaccinate everyone over 18 by the end of July.
The success of the vaccination campaign has given the government confidence to begin easing lockdown measures imposed shortly after Christmas, when the country confronted the third wave of the outbreak.
Non-essential stores in England reopened Monday, along with pubs and restaurants – though for outdoor service only. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also started lifting restrictions on social movements. More lockdown measures will be removed next month, including a ban on leisure travel, and the government said it plans to remove all remaining restrictions in England by the end of June.
“It’s great that we’ve managed to achieve the target of getting everyone in our [top nine priority groups] vaccinated by the deadline – a little bit ahead actually,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Tuesday. “At the moment I can’t see any reason for us to change the road map, to deviate from the targets that we’ve set ourselves.”
Britain has seen a major turnaround in the pandemic in the past few weeks since the government ramped up the vaccination program. The number of new daily infections has fallen to fewer than 2,500 from more than 60,000 on some days last January, and hospital admissions have sunk to the lowest level since last fall. The daily death toll dropped to 23 Tuesday from more than 1,500 in January. A weekly tracking of deaths by the Office for National Statistics has hit a six-month low.
But Mr. Johnson and health experts struck a note of caution Tuesday and said Britain could still see another surge in cases. While the number of new daily infections has plummeted, the figures have levelled off in recent days. Studies show the reproduction number, or R, is close to 1 for the whole country, indicating the pandemic is at a standstill – not necessarily on the way out. There are also signs that infections have increased slightly in some regions of England.
There is concern that the R number will rise as lockdown measures ease. Health officials are also closely monitoring an outbreak in London of 44 cases of the variant first detected in South Africa. That mutation is believed to be more contagious than the B.1.1.7 variant, which accounts for most of the cases in the U.K., and studies have shown it is more resistant to vaccines. NHS officials have launched a mass testing effort in parts of London to try to contain its spread.
“It is very, very important for everybody to understand that the reduction in these numbers – in hospitalizations and deaths and infections – has not been achieved by the vaccination program,” Mr. Johnson said. “Of course the vaccination program has helped, but the bulk of work in reducing disease has been done by the lockdown. So, as we unlock, the result will inevitably be that we will see more infection. Sadly, we will see more hospitalization and deaths. And people have just got to understand that.”
Kevin McConway, an emeritus professor of applied statistics at the Open University, cautioned that the current level of infection in the U.K. was still higher than last July. However, he said, the vaccination drive has reduced the chance of people becoming seriously ill or dying. “Vaccination doesn’t take the risk away completely, though, and anyway not all the population is vaccinated, and those are more reasons for continuing to be careful,” he added.
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