Johnson Set to Delay Lifting Covid Rules as U.K. Cases Rise

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is preparing to delay his plan to lift England’s pandemic restrictions amid concerns that a rapid rise in Covid-19 cases could put hospitals under strain.

The surge in the delta variant has forced Johnson and his team to rethink their blueprint for ending social distancing rules on June 21. Instead, officials now expect the premier to announce a delay of as long as four weeks to the easing of most rules when he sets out his decision to the nation on Monday evening.

There may be some relaxation of restrictions on weddings and major sporting events to allow larger public gatherings to take place, one official said. A delay would be a blow to entertainment and hospitality businesses that have been closed or operating under tight controls during the pandemic. Final decisions will be taken on Monday.

Johnson Set to Delay Lifting Covid Rules as U.K. Cases Rise

For Johnson it will be a sobering return to the office after a long weekend among the golden sands and aquamarine sea of Carbis Bay, southwest England, where he hosted the Group of Seven summit. It was an event the premier hoped would showcase British leadership on crucial issues including action to cut carbon emissions and commitments to help vaccinate the world and bring the pandemic to an end.

Throughout the gathering, though, Johnson and his team were dogged by questions about a simmering dispute with the European Union over post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, and the more immediate threat that a new wave of infections will engulf the country.

Delay

At a press conference on Sunday, Johnson said he hadn’t decided whether to lift social-distancing rules, and would study the latest Covid data before setting out his plans. The Times newspaper reported in its Monday edition Johnson and senior ministers including Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak have since signed off on a four-week delay.

On Monday, Health Minister Edward Argar suggested authorities will wait until more people have had their second vaccination before a wider easing. Fully vaccinated people have 81% immunity, compared with about a third for people with a single dose, he said.

Pandemic Relaxations Due June 21 Under Planned Roadmap
  • Nightclubs to reopen for first time since March 2020
  • Restrictions dropped on number of attendees at weddings
  • Restrictions dropped on theater, concert and sports match audiences
  • All legal restrictions on social distancing scrapped

“Everyone will recognize that there comes a point where we do have to live with this disease and recognize that you cannot go for a zero-Covid approach” Argar told Sky News. “Once we have got those second doses in people’s arms, once we have got that level of protection up to around 81%, then I think people will be more comfortable with it and we can see more easing.”

While Argar said he wouldn’t pre-empt the premier’s announcement, Johnson has been “giving very careful consideration” to the rules on weddings. Asked whether the furlough program -- which runs until September, but begins to taper next month -- will be extended, he said the prime minister “is very mindful of the need for businesses and others to get the support they need if they continue to be locked down or unable to open.”

Warning

On Saturday, Johnson sounded a warning over the worsening outlook, saying he felt less optimistic than he had done two weeks earlier.

The delta variant “is more transmissible and it’s also true that the cases are going up, and that the levels of hospitalization are going up,” Johnson told Sky News. “We don’t know exactly to what extent that is going to feed through into extra mortality, but clearly it’s a matter of serious, serious concern.”

Before Johnson addresses the nation, he will spend the day at the NATO summit in Brussels. While alliance leaders are likely to discuss Russia, Johnson may also find Brexit remains an issue.

Johnson Set to Delay Lifting Covid Rules as U.K. Cases Rise

The U.K. and EU are locked in a standoff over how to apply parts of the Brexit divorce accord that require checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from mainland Britain.

Brexit Tensions

Johnson and his team hit out at EU leaders on the sidelines of the G-7 summit, accusing them of being “offensive” in their failure to grasp that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the U.K.

French President Emmanuel Macron appealed for “calm” after reports suggested he had implied to Johnson he didn’t think Northern Ireland was part of the U.K. in the same way that Toulouse and Paris were both mainland French cities.

Johnson threatened to suspend parts of the Brexit deal if the EU doesn’t back down by the deadline of June 30, when a grace period on checks on goods headed to Northern Ireland expires. The bloc, meanwhile, has warned it will retaliate if the U.K. acts alone.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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