U.K.’s Johnson Likely to Delay Final Stage of Covid Reopening

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is poised to delay the final stage of pandemic lockdown easing in England, in a blow to hospitality and entertainment businesses that want to see social-distancing rules dropped.

Johnson is due to announce on Monday whether he will lift remaining curbs, imposed in January to contain a wave of infections, on June 21.

Ministers discussed different options this week, including delays ranging from nine days to a month, and allowing some planned relaxations to go ahead and others not, people familiar with the discussions said. Two of them suggested a delay is more likely than not, though no firm decisions have been taken.

Any delay to Johnson’s unlocking roadmap risks triggering a row with prominent members of his Conservative Party, who have dubbed June 21 “Freedom Day” and oppose extending restrictions any longer. It’s also key for the country’s nightclubs, which have been closed for 15 months, as well as events and pubs which still aren’t able to operate at capacity.

One of the people said ministers are shuffling options including continued wearing of masks in enclosed indoor spaces, ongoing social-distancing rules, and limits on numbers gathering indoors or outdoors.

Delta Variant

The prime minister had hoped 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.

But progress toward that goal has been undermined in recent weeks by the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant of Covid-19 first identified in India, which is behind an increase in cases and hospitalizations.

Johnson has always said decisions at each stage of unlocking hinge on the state of the pandemic, and on Wednesday the prime minister warned about the recent rise in cases. Health Secretary Matt Hancock told MPs on Thursday that the data still looked unclear ahead of the decision about June 21.

Talks will continue between ministers, scientists and officials before reaching a conclusion, Hancock said, with the government watching data “like a hawk” to determine whether vaccines are breaking the link between infections and serious illness. The delta variant now makes up 91% of new cases, he said.

Rising Cases

A further 7,540 laboratory-confirmed cases were reported Wednesday, the most since late February, while the number of patients in hospitals -- another closely watched variable -- exceeded 1,000 for the first time since May 12.

Neil Ferguson, an Imperial College London professor whose modeling was cited in the first lockdown last year, said Wednesday the delta variant is likely to be 60% more transmissible than the previously dominant alpha strain in the U.K.

Public Health England published data Thursday showing that the biggest increase in cases is among younger groups who haven’t yet had a vaccine, with the highest case rates in northwest England.

Data from the ZOE Covid study published Thursday estimates there are 11,908 new symptomatic cases a day in the U.K., up from 5,677 a week ago. Cases are higher and increasing faster among the unvaccinated population, it found.

The U.K. “has rapidly changed from one of the best performing nations to a nation again struggling with rising cases,” said Tim Spector, the study’s lead scientist and an epidemiologist at King’s College London.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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