U.K. Covid Data Worsens Ahead of Johnson’s Lockdown Decision

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U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces a slew of deteriorating coronavirus data ahead of his crunch decision Monday on whether to proceed with the final stage of reopening the economy later this month.

The reproduction rate of the virus in England has risen to levels last seen in October, the government said Friday. Separate research by the statistics office found an estimated 1 in 560 people in England had the virus in the week to June 4, up from 1 in 640 a week earlier and 1 in 1,340 in early May.

The month-long rising trend has been fueled by the faster-spreading delta variant of the virus, which now accounts for more than 90% of infections in the U.K. The number of confirmed cases of the strain, which is about 60% more infectious than the previously dominant alpha variant, tripled in a week to 42,323, Public Health England said Friday.

The worsening outlook has led ministers to discuss options including delays ranging from nine days to a month for the planned reopening on June 21, and allowing some relaxations to go ahead and others not.

“Let’s not squander those hard-fought gains” in the pandemic, Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi told BBC radio on Friday. “The virus hasn’t gone away, it will attempt to survive by mutating.”

‘Freedom Day’

While Zahawi said the government would continue to assess the data over the weekend, his remarks suggest a delay to the planned easing is likely. That will put Johnson in direct conflict with prominent members of his Conservative Party, for whom the June 21 “Freedom Day” has become totemic.

“The prime minister will be kept up to date in terms of the latest scientific evidence and data and we’ll be looking at the figures closely over the weekend and on Monday,” Johnson’s spokesman, Jamie Davies, told reporters.

The government had been optimistic that one of the world’s most advanced vaccination programs would allow the U.K. to drop social-distancing measures altogether on June 21, including the requirement for pubs and restaurants to only provide table service, limits on theater, concert and sporting audiences, and restrictions on the number of attendees at weddings. Under the plans, nightclubs would be allowed to reopen for the first time in 15 months.

Zahawi did say the link has been broken between rising coronavirus cases, and hospitalizations and deaths. Cases went up by 63% last week, with hospitalizations rising 7.1% and deaths up by 1.9%.

Vaccine Boost

With many older Britons having received two vaccine doses already, infections are spreading faster in younger age groups. In the two weeks through June 5, the percentage of people testing positive increased among those in school years seven through 11, as well as those aged 35 to 49, according to ONS data.

That may be why, along with the rapid immunization program, hospitalizations and deaths have not risen proportionally with the rise in cases.

“The data currently suggest that the vaccination program continues to mitigate the impact of this variant in populations who have high, two-dose vaccine coverage,” PHE said.

But officials are increasingly concerned at the recent rise in cases and the spread of the new variant, and dispatched military personnel to help in hotspots this week. Scientists are also warning that another mutation could emerge that could evade the vaccines.

Infection Rate

England’s so-called virus reproduction rate, or ‘R’ number, has risen to a range of 1.2 to 1.4, meaning that on average, 10 people with coronavirus would infect between 12 and 14 other people. It was in a range of 1.0 to 1.2 a week ago. A number above 1 means the virus is spreading exponentially.

According to the ONS, cases are also rising in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but declining in Wales.

Infection rate for week endingJune 4 (June 11 survey)May 29 (June 4 survey)May 22 (May 28 survey)May 15 (May 21 survey)
England1 in 5601 in 6401 in 1,1201 in 1,110
Scotland1 in 5401 in 6801 in 6301 in 1,960
Wales1 in 1,3001 in 1,0501 in 3,8501 in 4,340
N. Ireland1 in 7001 in 8001 in 8201 in 1,550

Ministers are now shuffling options including continued wearing of masks in enclosed indoor spaces, ongoing social-distancing rules, and limits on numbers gathering indoors or outdoors, according to people familiar with the matter.

With Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak among those prepared to accept a delay, a key hurdle has been removed for the premier if he decides the data now warrant one. In March, Sunak extended key economic support for workers and businesses through to the end of September to allow for delays to the government’s “roadmap” for unlocking the economy.

Covid Passports

As well as announcing a decision on the planned easing, the government on Monday will set out the conclusions to a number of reviews, including on social distancing, Davies said. The roadmap also promises the results of reviews on large events and Covid-status certification.

It was always the case that the dates in the four-step plan for reopening the economy were the earliest possible days when relaxations could take place. But after the first three steps were able to go ahead on schedule, the new variant has put the final stage at risk.

“It’s really important that we try and open up our economy again, because the economic damage is immense,” former Prime Minister Tony Blair told Bloomberg TV on Friday. He suggested the relaxation of rules should go ahead -- at least for those that are vaccinated.

“If you’re balancing restrictions with risk management, it therefore in my view makes perfect sense to give those people who are vaccinated greater freedom,” he said. “Greater freedom to travel, greater freedom from restriction.”

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