When the British government eased all COVID-19 restrictions last week despite a surge in infections, several health experts called the move a dangerous experiment and some predicted that daily infections would more than double to 100,000 as a result.
Instead, the number of new cases has fallen for six consecutive days, and the daily tally is down 37 per cent. On Monday there were 24,950 reported infections, down from 39,950 a week ago.
Scientists aren’t entirely sure why the rate of infection has been falling. Some cite the start of the school holidays, which began July 19, while others point to warmer weather that has kept people outdoors. A growing number of workers have been forced to self-isolate recently after coming in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus, which may have helped limit transmission.
“The recent fall in cases in England is great news, but also puzzling given that progressive relaxation of restrictions has occurred,” said Stephen Griffin, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Leeds. However, Dr. Griffin said the daily case figures likely don’t yet capture the full extent of the easing of restrictions, which included allowing nightclubs to reopen.
Britain has become something of a global test case for how countries cope with the Delta variant while trying to reopen their economies. The government’s decision to ease restrictions last Monday came as the Delta variant pushed the number of daily infections to more than 50,000 earlier this month, the highest level since the peak of the pandemic, in January.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is banking on the government’s extensive vaccination campaign, which has immunized 70 per cent of adults so far, one of the highest rates in the world. While Mr. Johnson has conceded that infections, hospital admissions and deaths will rise in the short term, he’s hopeful that more vaccinations will keep the pandemic at a manageable level.
Hospitalizations have continued to rise despite the slowdown in daily infections. As of Monday, there were slightly more than 5,000 COVID-19 patients in hospitals, a figure that has been rising by almost 1,000 per day. The number is up sharply from 871 on May 27, but it’s far below the almost 40,000 patients in January.
The daily death tally has remained well below 100, down from the more than 1,000 deaths reported some days in January.
However, many health experts had questioned the government’s decision to lift restrictions and argued that daily infections could climb to 100,000 or even 200,000, which would strain the health care system. “We believe the government is embarking on a dangerous and unethical experiment,” more than 1,000 scientists said in a letter published July 8 in the medical journal The Lancet.
On Monday, several experts said they remained concerned that case levels could surge again. A key indicator will be the weekly infection survey produced by the Office for National Statistics, which is based on mass samplings. Last week’s survey, released Friday, showed that numbers were continuing to rise and that one person in 75 in England had the virus, up from one in 95 a week earlier. The ONS said the numbers had also increased in Wales and Northern Ireland and remained steady in Scotland.
“One can speculate endlessly on reasons why the ONS survey and daily test result may differ,” said James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute at the University of Oxford. “Speculation serves no purpose when we will know whether there is actually any divergence on Friday. Let’s wait for the data.”
Dr. Naismith added that it likely won’t be until late August before the full impact of the July 19 easing will be understood. “Many scientists, myself included, expect the end of lockdown to see a rise in cases,” he added. “However, we have been wrong before and we will be wrong in the future. Only charlatans claim omniscience.”
There has been some concern that younger adults have been slow to take up the vaccine, which could also drive up infections. Roughly one-third of 18-to-29-year-olds have yet to receive a first dose. In order to spur vaccinations, the government may require that university students be fully vaccinated in order to attend classes in person or stay in student residence.
“I think it’s really important that young people step forward for their vaccination,” Vicky Ford, the Under Secretary of State for Children and Families, told the BBC Monday. “We’ve always considered everything that we can do to make sure that all people are safe in education. And the key thing, as we know, to keep transmission down is to make sure that people get their vaccination.”
There’s also widespread concern about the reopening of nightclubs. The Netherlands experienced an eight-fold jump in cases immediately after the government eased restrictions last month and allowed nightclubs to reopen; two weeks later, it reversed course and closed most nightclubs to help stem the rising caseload. Several regions in Spain have gone through a similar experience.
Mr. Johnson said last week that in September nightclub patrons in England will be required to show proof that they have been fully vaccinated.
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