LONDON – With a swift and successful vaccine campaign underway, the path seemed clear not long ago for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to remove all of England’s coronavirus rules on June 21, ending restrictions he resisted imposing. first.
But on Monday, Johnson postponed the moment dubbed “freedom day” by the tabloids for four weeks after a surge in cases of a new highly communicable variant that can cause more serious illness than previous variants. Restaurants and pubs in England, while open, will still have to observe social distancing rules indoors, limiting capacity, and nightclubs and theaters will remain firmly closed.
The decision, which will be reviewed in two weeks, sent a warning to the world that even well-vaccinated nations remain at risk and angered a noisy group of libertarian lawmakers within Johnson’s own party.
Today the average number of new cases in Britain is around 8,000 a day, doubling every week in the worst affected areas. Hospital admissions have started to rise. And the impact of the Delta variant across the country has already sparked alarm in other European countries, including Germany, which has introduced a travel ban.
In Britain, around four-fifths of adults have received one dose and more than half have received a second injection. But people on a single dose are still susceptible to cases of the Delta variant, more so than to earlier versions of the virus, the scientists said. And a steady rise in infections in younger, unvaccinated people could trigger a dangerous wave of hospitalizations.
That has helped convince many epidemiologists that lifting the restrictions now could, in the worst case, produce as many hospital cases as in the first wave of the pandemic, overwhelming the National Health Service just as it is trying to do so. Faced with a backlog of backlogged procedures. that were postponed during the pandemic.
At a news conference in Downing Street, Johnson said it was sensible to wait “a little longer” before lifting the sidewalks, noting that “even if the link between infection and hospitalization has weakened, it has not been broken.”
Expressing confidence that he will be able to remove the remaining restrictions on July 19, Johnson added that “at a certain point, we will have to learn to live with the virus and manage it as best we can.”
Since it was first sampled in Britain almost four months ago, the Delta variant, which was initially detected in India, has spread across the country, surpassing even the dangerous Alpha variant that took hold from earlier. Recent studies show that 96 percent of new cases are now of the Delta variant.
And the variant now appears to be outpacing other versions of the virus in parts of the United States and Canada as well, and some scientists say they expected that trend to continue.
Yet scientists continue to disagree on the exact severity of the threat it poses in Britain, with some arguing that the most dire predictions of rising hospitalizations underestimate the effect that even the current level of vaccinations has in breaking the link. between the number of new cases and hospitalizations. and deaths.
Optimists could point to Monday’s reassuring news from Public Health England: the full courses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines offer extremely strong protection against hospitalization in cases of the Delta variant.
Two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were 96 percent effective in preventing hospitalizations, and two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine were 92 percent effective, the public health agency said. Single doses of either vaccine were also effective in protecting against hospitalizations, albeit slightly less, and with higher levels of statistical uncertainty.
Public Health England said the figures were comparable to the performance of vaccines against the Alpha variant.
But there are still millions of people who have not yet received a vaccine. They are mostly under the age of 50 and therefore, even if they do contract Covid, they are believed to be less likely to develop a case severe enough to require hospitalization.
Still, a big enough wave of infections could cause problems: a study from Scotland published Monday in The Lancet found that people with cases caused by Delta were about twice as likely to be hospitalized as those with Alpha.
“The nature and timing of the transition from a large epidemic to living with Covid-19 was never likely to be straightforward,” said Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. “The Delta variant has made the process considerably difficult.”
According to Monday’s announcement, there will be a review of government Covid-19 rules on June 28, and if the situation improves significantly, the restrictions could be lifted on July 5.
But if that fails, the current restrictions will remain in effect for two more weeks, except for a few minor relaxations like the numbers allowed at weddings.
The delay is meant to allow millions more vaccines to be given, increasing the second doses that appear to be critical in protecting against the Delta variant. In particular, the time between the first and second vaccines administered to those over 40 will be shortened, and all that group will be offered two doses before July 19.
For Johnson, who just hosted G7 heads of government in Cornwall, England, and attended a NATO summit, Monday’s announcement was a stark reminder that the Covid-19 pandemic remains his biggest challenge. .
Instinctively libertarian, Johnson initially resisted imposing lockdowns last year and has been accused of ignoring scientific advice, despite his own serious Covid-19 attack that landed him in intensive care.
In December, there was chaos over the restrictions for the holiday period, as the government initially tried to relax them, but was later forced to back down and “cancel Christmas.” Critics blamed delays in imposing restrictions, at least in part, for a disastrous second wave of the virus in the winter months.
The lesson from that shameful episode was that lifting the rules should be, in Mr. Johnson’s words, “irreversible,” to avoid repeating the pattern of eliminating and then reimposing restrictions.
The June 21 date for the reopening was to be the fourth and final stage of a plan announced in February to gradually lift the harsh blockade that was in place. He always left room for delay if the situation got worse.
As of Monday, everything had largely gone as expected, so within his own Conservative Party, Johnson’s decision is controversial.
Given that it has taken place despite high vaccination rates and the arrival of summer, when people can gather outside more frequently, some critics see the delay as a prelude to endless restrictions.
“We have a quick launch of effective vaccines and we are heading into the summer,” said Mark Harper, a conservative lawmaker and former whip boss. wrote on Twitter. “If, even at this point, the government doesn’t release restrictions, this points to restrictions in the fall and winter, when respiratory illnesses are on the rise and the NHS is always under more pressure.”
But Johnson had almost no choice but to ask for a delay, given the consensus within the scientific and medical world that lifting all restrictions at this point would be unwise. After all, the current restrictions are not burdensome.
While it was first detected around the same time in Great Britain and the United States, the Delta variant is considerably more advanced in Great Britain.
Scientists have pointed to Britain’s strong ties to travel from India as the cause, and the opposition Labor Party has criticized Johnson for waiting too long to impose the strictest quarantine restrictions on travelers arriving from there. At the time, Johnson was planning a visit to India and hoped to strike a post-Brexit trade deal with his government.
Although Johnson’s decision was expected on Monday, the response from the worst-hit parts of the economy has been desperate. UK Hospitality, an industry trade group, warned before the announcement that any delay would put around 300,000 jobs at risk. Night Industries Association He warned that one in four companies would not survive more than a month without further financial support.