U.K.’s Johnson Still Confident of Reopening Despite Variant Rise

A medic administers a Covid-19 swab test on a patient in a pop-up testing tent. (Photographer: Nathan Laine/Bloomberg)

U.K.’s Johnson Still Confident of Reopening Despite Variant Rise

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he remains confident that England’s lockdown will end on June 21 as planned, despite the rapid rise in cases of a variant first detected in India.

Authorities have found 3,424 cases of the B1.617.2 variant in the U.K., up from 1,313 last week. Public Health England also announced late on Thursday it was investigating a separate variant with an “unusual mutation profile,” with 49 cases logged so far.

That prompted fears that the U.K.’s reopening plans could be in doubt, but Johnson told broadcasters on Friday: “At the moment I can’t see anything that makes me think we’ll have to deviate from the roadmap.”

A final decision on the June 21 date will be taken in the next few weeks when scientists and ministers have analyzed data on cases and hospitalizations.

A government review is also due to report next month on whether people will need proof of vaccines or negative tests to attend events and venues. Johnson told broadcasters he doesn’t expect people to need certificates to go to the pub.

‘Potential increase’

There are “early signs of a potential increase” in coronavirus cases in England in the week ending May 15, the Office for National Statistics said on Friday. But the rates remain low: one in 1,100 people were estimated to have the virus, up from one in 1,340 the week before.

Scientists say there is currently no evidence to suggest vaccines will be less effective in protecting people against severe illness from the variant that originated in India, also known as VOC-21APR-02, but believe it could be more transmissible than the fast-spreading Kent variant that led to the country’s third lockdown in January.

Concerns over the variant last week, particularly in northwest England and London, prompted authorities to alter the country’s vaccination program, shortening the interval between doses.

“As we start to get back to normal life, it is very important that we do not become complacent,” Health Security Agency Chief Executive Officer Jenny Harries said in a statement Thursday. “All of us need to remain responsible and vigilant.”

Nevertheless, ministers and officials this week have struck an optimistic tone, with the premier saying Wednesday that he has “increasing confidence” vaccines are working against all coronavirus variants. More than 70% of U.K. adults have now had at least one dose of vaccine, making the country’s program one of the most advanced in the world.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland told Sky News on Friday that caution was the “watchword” when it came to reopening the economy further. He said that even if social distancing rules were lifted as planned, he would continue to wear a mask if he had signs of a cold.

Most of the 49 cases of the new variant under investigation are in Yorkshire and the Humber, in northern England, according to PHE. “There is currently no evidence that this variant causes more severe disease or renders the vaccines currently deployed any less effective,” it said.

On Monday, international holidays were allowed again, and pubs and restaurants could serve customers indoors.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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