Boris Johnson Faces Lockdown Dilemma Just as U.K. Covid Cases Rise

Coronavirus infection rates in the U.K. are heading in the wrong direction at just the wrong moment for Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

In the coming days he will thrash out with ministers whether to lift pandemic restrictions as planned on June 21, with an announcement due a week before. Businesses are demanding it, as are members of his Conservative Party, for whom the date has become a totemic symbol of life returning to normal.

Yet Covid cases are again on the rise, fueled by the highly transmissible Delta variant first identified in India which is now dominant in Britain. Cases of the strain confirmed in laboratories more than doubled this week to 12,431, while early evidence suggests it may be linked to an higher risk of hospitalization.

Data from the statistics office showed an estimated 1 in 640 people in England had the virus in the week to May 29, up from 1 in 1,120 a week earlier. The rate more than tripled in Wales. Across the U.K., 6,238 new Covid cases were reported on Friday, the highest daily total since March.

The figures present a significant dilemma for Johnson as he weighs up whether to forge ahead with dropping all legal limits on social contact this month. That would mean nightclubs reopening, full stadiums, people queuing at the bar again, and large weddings and conferences back in the diaries.

Boris Johnson Faces Lockdown Dilemma Just as U.K. Covid Cases Rise

“Balancing, clearly, people’s desire -- and there clearly is a built-up desire to get back to normal -- against the potential risk is a very difficult judgment call,” Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist from Imperial College London whose modeling was key to the first lockdown in March 2020, told the BBC on Friday. “It’s not my job to make that decision, thankfully.”

‘Irreversible’

Johnson’s ultimate decision -- which he has said should be “irreversible” --- will define both Britain’s path out of lockdown as well as perceptions of him as prime minister. He has been accused of dithering over key decisions in the pandemic, with his former top aide Dominic Cummings comparing him to a “shopping trolley, smashing from one side of the aisle to the other.”

Delaying June 21 would risk a major showdown with Tory MPs who regard the date as a promise to voters. They point to the rapid vaccine rollout, and the fact that the U.K. this week had a day without recorded Covid deaths for the first time since the pandemic began, as reasons to proceed.

Boris Johnson Faces Lockdown Dilemma Just as U.K. Covid Cases Rise

But Johnson has to balance the pandemic toll taken on industry, people’s mental health and job opportunities, against the risk of a fresh spike in cases.

‘False Hopes’

The government was urged to pause plans for reopening -- in order to “avoid another full lockdown” -- by the Independent SAGE group of scientists chaired by former chief scientific adviser David King. That decision should be “made now to modify current false hopes,” they said in an emailed statement.

England’s virus reproduction rate is at 1 to 1.2, meaning every 10 people infected will infect 10 to 12 other people. The range was 1 to 1.1 last week.

The government tightened restrictions on international travel this week, a move it linked to the need to protect the unlocking of the economy. Removing Portugal from the so-called green list of destinations people can arrive from without quarantine was a body blow to an airline industry crying out for a reopening of European travel. But it was a strong indication of the government’s priorities.

U.K. Drops Portugal From Travel Green List, Gutting Airlines

Even so, much now depends on data expected next week to show how well the vaccines are performing against the Delta variant.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock played down the rise in cases on Friday, saying the “critical thing” is the impact on hospitalizations and death.

‘Too Early’

“That link has been broken by the vaccine, but it hasn’t been completely severed yet,” he said in a pooled clip to broadcasters. “That’s one of the things that we’re watching very carefully, and it’s too early to say what the decision will be ahead of June 21.”

Just over half of all U.K. adults have received two doses so far -- but that leaves almost half without maximum protection.

Around one in 10 people in the hospital with Covid-19 in hotspot areas last week had received two shots, Hancock told MPs, showing that the vaccine is also “not 100% effective.”

It’s also clear there will not be 100% vaccine take-up. So the questions facing the government are: Just how effective are the doses, and what threshold of hospitalizations and death is acceptable for the economy to fully reopen?

Wiggle Room

There are also political calculations on what is a matter of trust between the people and the government. Voters were promised that the vaccines would get them out of lockdown, and Johnson is eager to deliver on that.

The government has some wiggle room to relax some measures -- rather than all -- on June 21, because the legal framework for Covid restrictions is in place until the end of September.

Jeremy Farrar, a member of the government’s scientific panel advising on the pandemic response, said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the restrictions can be lifted. He said vaccines hold the key -- in the U.K. and around the world.

“This is perhaps the hardest U.K. policy decision of the last 18 months,” he said in an emailed statement. “The best way to protect the U.K. from future variants is through global vaccination. As long as the virus continues to circulate, it will continue to mutate.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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