Britain has taken what many scientists fear is a giant leap into the unknown after the government dropped all pandemic restrictions across most of the country – despite a surge in infections that some experts fear could reach 200,000 a day this summer.
No other country has gone as far in removing COVID-19 measures in the face of such a rapid rise in infections. The Delta variant has driven the number of new daily cases in the U.K. above 50,000 in recent days, reaching levels not seen since the peak of the health crisis, in January.
Nonetheless, on Monday the government lifted the remaining measures in England, including mandatory mask laws and limits on the number of people allowed into cinemas, theatres and sports stadiums. Rules restricting pubs to table service have also been removed, and nightclubs have reopened for the first time since March, 2020. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which run their own health care systems, are also easing restrictions but at a slower pace.
Some health experts worry that ending the restrictions will lead to an even larger wave of infections and hospital admissions. Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said that new daily cases could climb to 100,000 this summer, while Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College, said it could be worse. “The real question is do we get to double that – or even higher,” Dr. Ferguson told the BBC Sunday.
“We are heading into the biggest wave of COVID infection that we have ever seen and, even though the vaccine will substantially reduce the number of deaths and hospitalizations, it’s still likely that we will see somewhere in the low tens of thousands of deaths even if we are cautious,” added Andrew Hayward, an epidemiologist at University College London.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson conceded during a news conference Monday that easing restrictions will increase the infection rate and lead to a greater number of hospitalizations and deaths. But he argued that Britain’s high vaccination rate – more than two-thirds of adults have received two doses – should ensure that the National Health Service can cope.
“We want people to be able to take back their freedoms,” Mr. Johnson said. “We want this country to be able to enjoy the fruits of our massive efforts and of our enormous vaccination campaign.”
But in a sign of just how far the surge in cases has gone, Mr. Johnson was forced into isolation because he came in contact with Mr. Javid, who tested positive for the virus last weekend.
Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said hospital admissions could increase from fewer than 800 a day to 1,000 or more. However, he said, that would still be far lower than the numbers in January, which topped 4,000 some days. Similarly, the number of deaths could increase, from about 50 to 100 a day, which would also be fewer than the 1,400 daily deaths reported in January. “The opening up [of the economy] into an increasing wave does carry specific risks of increased infection, which is then mitigated by the presence of vaccinations,” Sir Patrick said Monday.
Mr. Johnson also argued that delaying the final lifting of restrictions would only push the current wave into the fall, when the NHS would be dealing with seasonal flu. “If we don’t open up now, then we face a risk of even tougher conditions in the colder months,” he said. “There comes a point after so many have been vaccinated when further restrictions no longer prevent hospitalizations and deaths but simply delay the inevitable.”
Before the Delta variant took hold of the U.K. in April, the Prime Minister described July 19 as “freedom day” and indicated that the government’s plan to ease restrictions was irreversible.
On Monday he struck a more cautious tone and said he couldn’t guarantee that the road map out of the pandemic would not be reversed. He also said that, as of September, vaccine certificates will be mandatory for crowded venues such as nightclubs. “We have to be humble in the face of nature,” he said.
Other countries have been less willing to go as far as Britain. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said over the weekend that restrictions would remain in place until more people were vaccinated. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said last week that his government had lifted restrictions too soon and that he had reimposed some measures because of an increase in infections. And on Monday, in a blow to the U.K., the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Americans against travelling to Britain because of the surge of COVID-19 cases there.
Britain is also taking a different approach to vaccinating children. While Canada and several other countries have cleared the way for everyone between the ages of 12 and 18 to be immunized, Britain’s vaccine deployment minister, Nadhim Zahawi, said Monday that only some children will be inoculated. Vaccinations will be offered to teenagers with neurodisabilities, such as Down’s syndrome, as well as those who live with an immunosuppressed person.
Jeremy Brown, a government adviser and professor of respiratory infection at University College London, said the decision was based largely on the fact that most children do not become severely ill with COVID-19. He also cited Britain’s high level of vaccine uptake.
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