Johnson Warns of Tougher Covid Rules If U.K. Cases Surge
(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson warned he could bring back compulsory face masks, advise people to work from home and mandate the use of vaccine passports if a surge in Covid cases this winter threatens to overwhelm the U.K.’s National Health Service.
The British prime minister said he hopes a beefed-up vaccination program starting next week -- including booster shots for the over-50s and vaccines for children as young as 12 -- will be enough to keep the virus under control.
Under his winter plan published Tuesday, the government will also roll out the U.K.’s biggest-ever vaccination campaign against influenza -- with free flu shots available to teenagers and all over-50s as well as vulnerable groups.
“Taken together, this can protect the gains we’ve made,” Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Sky News on Wednesday, when asked why the government is not immediately introducing stricter measures. “The big difference -- this is huge -- is the vaccines. We know they are working.”
But in a televised Downing Street news conference Tuesday, Johnson said further measures must be kept “in reserve” and that proof of vaccination in particular is “an important part of our repertoire.”
Though daily Covid infections remain relatively high -- with 26,628 new cases reported Tuesday -- the government regards current pressure on the NHS as manageable and Johnson is keen to enter a new phase of the pandemic with more individual choice and freedom.
As part of this, the premier said he is considering “simplifying” the so-called traffic light rules for international travel and wants to make “the burdens of testing less onerous for those who are coming back into the country.” More details are expected to be announced before the end of the month.
The risk for Johnson is that he eases the rules just as the virus begins to surge again, putting pressure on a health service that is already struggling to cope with rising waiting lists for elective operations and treatment.
England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, standing alongside Johnson, said that while Covid cases had stabilized to “some extent,” the U.K. is coming into the “most difficult part of the year.” The number of people in hospitals with the virus is “drifting up” and variable around the country, he said.
“We are entering the winter with this reasonably high level and it wouldn’t take many doubling times to get into trouble,” Whitty warned.
Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said ministers must act quickly and strongly if the data goes the wrong way. The ratio of cases to hospitalizations is seen as an important factor in deciding when to impose further measures.
The U.K. could bring back legislation to enforce national or regional lockdowns in England as a last resort, a person familiar with the matter said, adding this was not the intention.
The government earlier accepted the advice from its vaccine committee to go ahead with the Covid vaccine boosters. The program will rely on shots from Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc., both based on messenger RNA technology, and only offering the homegrown vaccine by AstraZeneca Plc and the University of Oxford in cases where people can’t have an mRNA vaccine.
The U.K.’s plans are being closely watched globally. Knowing that people can safely receive a third shot that’s based on a different technology could give countries more flexibility in their efforts to widen vaccination coverage. At the same time, Britain’s move is likely to fuel the debate over boosters.
Some countries are moving ahead with extra doses amid an increased threat from the delta variant and studies suggesting waning antibody levels in vaccinated individuals. Yet World Health Organization officials have urged governments to wait at least until the end of the year so that poorer countries get better access to vaccines, adding that the scientific evidence is insufficient.
The government estimates nine countries have already announced booster campaigns, with potentially 18 others considering such a step, Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for England, said in a televised press conference. The country understands the need to expand vaccine coverage globally, he said.
“We get that,” he said. “By the same token, the job given to us is to define what is best for the U.K.”
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