Johnson Urges Caution as India Strain Clouds U.K. Unlocking

Matt Hancock, U.K. health secretary, right, arrives in Downing Street ahead of Rishi Sunak, U.K. chancellor of the exchequer, presenting the budget statement in Parliament in London, U.K. (Photographer: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg)

Johnson Urges Caution as India Strain Clouds U.K. Unlocking

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U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the next step out of lockdown must be taken “with a heavy dose of caution” as more coronavirus restrictions are lifted on Monday.

As the bans on international travel and households mixing indoors are relaxed, the National Health Service mobile app has started showing individuals’ vaccine status, a key step in the development of so-called Covid passports that will be key to enabling foreign trips.

But the government is concerned that the highly transmissible virus strain that originated in India could lead to a major surge in cases, and is accelerating the vaccine rollout to people aged 35 and over this week in an attempt to contain the new variant.

Johnson Urges Caution as India Strain Clouds U.K. Unlocking

Johnson has already warned that the final stage of lifting restrictions, due on June 21, may be delayed amid rising concerns over the new strain, as he urged the public to use Monday’s freedoms with care.

“We are keeping the spread of the variant first identified in India under close observation and taking swift action where infection rates are rising,” Johnson said in a statement. “The current data does not indicate unsustainable pressure on the NHS and our extraordinary vaccination program will accelerate – with second doses being bought forward to give the most vulnerable maximum protection.”

Relaxations of Coronavirus Rules Starting May 17
  • Groups of six, or two households allowed to meet indoors
  • Groups of 30 allowed to meet outdoors
  • Social-distancing rules dropped for those groups
  • Pubs, bars and restaurants allowed to re-open indoors
  • Indoor entertainment such as cinemas, museums to resume
  • Theaters, concert halls, sports stadiums, conference centers can reopen for larger events -- with capacity limits
  • Organized adult sports and exercise classes can resume indoors
  • Accommodation including hotels, hostels can reopen
  • Cap lifted on number of funeral attendees
  • Holidays allowed to countries on government’s green list
  • All remaining university students can go back to in-person teaching
  • Face coverings no longer recommended for pupils in classes, communal areas in secondary schools

Johnson is facing demands from within his own Conservative Party to stick to his planned timetable for lifting the lockdown -- or even speed it up in the light of a successful vaccination rollout. For businesses such as nightclubs, which are being required to wait until next month at the earliest to reopen, the threat of another surge in infections is a major worry.

On Monday, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said that if the roadmap for reopening is pushed back, “it’s reasonable to expect that we would support the economy.” He said that while he couldn’t guarantee the final stage of unlocking the economy will take place on June 21, he’s still optimistic.

Vaccines

“I fully expect that we’ll be reopened on the 21st of June; I think it’s very likely to happen,” Kwarteng told Sky News. “There’s nothing that I’ve seen, and there’s nothing that the prime minister has seen, up to now that suggests we’re going to delay that.”

On Sunday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock cited “new very early data” from Oxford University that shows vaccines do appear to work against the India strain, which government medical advisers have said may be 40-50% easier to transmit.

Hancock warned it could “spread like wildfire among the unvaccinated groups” and urged people to come forward for shots when eligible. “We have a high degree of confidence that the vaccine will overcome” the disease.

Johnson Urges Caution as India Strain Clouds U.K. Unlocking

Almost 70% of the adult population had at least one dose as of May 14 and 37% have had two shots.

The number of confirmed infections of the B.1.617.2 variant more than doubled in the past week from 520 to 1,313, according to Public Health England. A cluster of cases in the northwestern English towns of Bolton, Blackburn and Darwen has prompted the government to deploy the army to assist in testing and vaccination efforts.

Hancock said he couldn’t rule out local measures to contain outbreaks. He defended the timing of the government’s restrictions on travel from India, saying the country was placed on the U.K.’s travel ban red list “before we knew about this new variant.”

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