Reopening U.K. Economy on June 21 Hangs ‘in the Balance’

The plan to end England’s pandemic restrictions on June 21 is in doubt, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said, as he warned that the Covid variant first found in India now makes up as many as three-quarters of all new cases.

A formal assessment of data on cases and hospitalizations will be published before June 14, Hancock said, and the lifting of remaining restrictions will only happen “if it’s safe.”

While Hancock said the U.K. vaccine program is breaking the link between infections and deaths, experts and officials underlined his warning that lockdown rules may be needed for longer as the new strain surges across the country.

Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist from Imperial College London whose modeling was key to the first lockdown, told the BBC the unlocking is “in the balance” and data collected in the next two to three weeks will be critical. Later, he was backed up by Jenny Harries, head of the U.K. Health Security Agency, who said the battle against the new variant is tight.

Rising cases

Covid-19 cases have increased in recent days, with 3,180 daily infections reported in the U.K. on Wednesday, and admissions to hospital also starting to rise.

Case rates rose slightly in most regions in the week to May 23, and were highest among those who are 10 to 19 years old, data published by Public Health England on Thursday show. Yvonne Doyle, medical director at PHE, stressed the need to remain cautious.

Hancock stressed that the vaccine was not 100% effective, saying that about one in 10 people hospitalized in Covid hot spot areas had been fully vaccinated.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson remains confident the reopening will go ahead. “As I’ve said many times, I don’t see anything currently in the data to suggest that we have to deviate from the road map,” he said in a pooled interview.

Ferguson said it was always expected that relaxing rules on social distancing would lead to a surge in infections, but there were still questions over how much the variant was making it worse.

Britain “can’t cope” with too large a surge in cases, Ferguson told the BBC. “Step four is rather in the balance,” he said. “The data collected in the next two to three weeks will be critical.”

Relaxing rules

Step three of England’s road map on May 17 saw a wide relaxation of rules, with people allowed to meet indoors for the first time in months -- including inside pubs and restaurants -- but in groups of either two households or as many as six people.

Step four would see all legal limits on social contact lifted, with people allowed to meet up in bigger groups and large-scale events able to take place.

In other developments:

  • Cabinet minister Michael Gove said vaccine passports would not be used in pubs, or on public transportation, but he said 10 countries had so far agreed to accept the NHS app records as proof of immunity for travel. These included tourist hotspots such as Croatia and Greece
  • Gove said vaccine certification would only be a temporary measure for U.K. venues, if it’s introduced
  • Harries said most deaths now are among older people who have not been vaccinated
  • Harries said second doses of vaccines are vital to give the best protection against the variant from India.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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