British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is ditching vaccine passports, mandatory face mask rules and work-from-home regulations, and will instead rely mainly on vaccinations to get the country through the winter months.
Mr. Johnson outlined the government’s pandemic strategy for England on Tuesday and it centred largely on expanding vaccinations to younger teenagers and launching a booster-shot program for front-line health care staff and people over the age of 50. Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which run their own health care systems, are expected to largely follow suit.
The Prime Minister ruled out mandatory vaccine passports and face-mask requirements, at least for now. They would only be introduced if COVID-19 cases rise sharply and hospitals became overwhelmed.
“We are confident in the vaccines that have made such a difference to our lives and we’re now intensifying that effort,” Mr. Johnson said during a televised news conference. “We’re now motoring ahead with the booster program … so that’s going to mean we’re going to be building even higher walls of immunization of vaccine protection in this country.”
Unlike Canada, where several provinces require vaccine passports for entry into bars, restaurants and indoor sports facilities, Mr. Johnson has backed away from the idea. In July, he said vaccine certification would be required for nightclubs and large sports events as of the end of September. But this week, he dropped the plan and left it up to individual establishments to decide whether to require certificates.
“We do not see the need now to proceed with mandatory certification, but we’ll continue to work with the many businesses that are getting ready such a scheme,” he said on Tuesday. However, he added that he will revisit the issue if hospitals come under pressure.
Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, caused some confusion by indicating vaccine certifications would help stop the spread of the virus. “From a science point of view, nobody would doubt that you’re safer off if you go to any indoor venue and everyone around you is vaccinated,” he said during the news conference. “How that’s done is very much a matter for ministers.”
Mr. Johnson expressed confidence that Britain has begun learning how to live with COVID-19 even though health officials report roughly 30,000 new infections every day – nearly three times as many as a year ago.
The big difference has been hospital admissions and deaths, which remain far below the levels seen during the peak of the pandemic last January. Currently, there are 8,400 people in hospital with the disease, roughly five times lower than at the height of the outbreak. Mortality figures have also fallen to fewer than 200 a day, compared with more than 1,000 a day in January.
However, the daily figures have been rising recently and Mr. Johnson said the government will closely monitor hospital admissions for any signs that the National Health Service is under stress. If the NHS is overwhelmed, the Prime Minister said the government will introduce “Plan B,” which could involve mandatory face-mask rules, work-from-home advice and vaccine passports in some settings.
The government’s scientific advisory panel has warned hospitalizations could climb from around 1,000 a day to between 2,000 and 7,000 next month as people mix more freely at school and work. “With the current levels of high prevalence combined with unknown behaviours, the burden on health and care settings could rise very quickly,” the panel said in a publication released Tuesday.
Also, the vaccine rollout has been fraught with confusion lately. Earlier this month, a scientific committee that advises the government on vaccines declined to recommend all children between the ages of 12 and 15 be immunized. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI) said while the health benefits of inoculating children were marginally greater than the risks, “the margin of benefit is considered too small to support universal vaccination of healthy 12- to 15-year-olds at this time.”
Nonetheless, this week the chief medical officers for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland recommended all children be vaccinated. The CMOs argued social consideration, including disruptions to education, increased the benefits.
Booster shots have also caused controversy. Several scientists, including Sarah Gilbert who helped develop the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine at the University of Oxford, have said widespread boosters were unnecessary and that the extra vaccine should be distributed to countries that badly need doses.
On Tuesday, the JCVI recommended booster jabs for front-line health care workers and adults over the age of 50. The committee said there has been growing evidence that vaccine immunity wanes over time and a third dose will protect the most vulnerable population. The government plans to launch the booster program next week and all eligible adults will receive their third shot six months after their second dose.
Dr. Whitty defended the booster program by arguing Britain has taken a middle path. The JCVI “has not said no boosters at all … but they have not gone all the way of recommending universal boosters for everybody,” he said.
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