U.K.’s Johnson Ready to Lift Covid Rules Despite Rise in Cases

Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister, gestures during a news conference in London. (Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg)

U.K.’s Johnson Ready to Lift Covid Rules Despite Rise in Cases

Boris Johnson’s government is preparing to lift all remaining coronavirus restrictions for England on July 19, despite the delta variant sending infections soaring to their highest daily rate since January.

In his first statement to members of Parliament since taking up his new job, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said he was “very confident” curbs could be lifted in three weeks as planned.

“No date we choose comes with zero risk from Covid,” he said. “We have to learn to live with it.”

Javid’s comments were a notable shift in tone from the government as he appeared to play down the risks from the virus, saying bluntly that restrictions to people’s freedoms “must come to an end.”

But he ducked questions over whether restrictions may need to be brought back in the autumn and winter if infections rise again.

No Going Back?

The U.K. reported 22,868 new Covid-19 cases on Monday, the most since Jan. 30. But hospitalization and death rates remain relatively low as the vaccine program progresses.

More than 84% of U.K. adults have had at least one dose and nearly 62% of adults have had two. Vaccines have so far prevented an estimated 7.2 million infections and 27,000 deaths in England, according to modelling from Public Health England and Cambridge University.

There will not be an early release from the restrictions on July 5, which was an option if data had been good enough. Speaking earlier, Johnson said it was “sensible” to take a few more weeks to analyze the infection patterns and deliver more second vaccine doses before lifting the curbs.

“With every day that goes by it’s clearer to me and all our scientific advisers that we’re very likely to be in a position on July 19 to say that really is the terminus, and we can go back to life as it was before Covid as far as possible,” Johnson told reporters.

Entertainment and hospitality businesses including nightclubs and theaters have been shut due to the need to operate social distancing rules.

While many bosses will welcome the government’s upbeat assessment, others are likely to remember they have been disappointed before, after plans to lift the limits on social gatherings were delayed by a month.

Face Masks

Under the delayed timetable, all legal rules on social distancing are due to be scrapped from July 19, allowing nightclubs to reopen for the first time since March 2020. Audience limits will also be dropped for theater, concert and sports venues under the plan.

It’s not yet clear whether rules on face coverings will be dropped. Javid notably did not commit to lifting all curbs in July but said the government would lay out details “in due course.”

Even though domestic rules are set to be eased, Britons face a harder time traveling overseas, as other countries impose curbs on arrivals from the U.K. in response to the rise in the delta variant. The authorities in Portugal, Spain and Hong Kong all announced new restrictions on British travelers.

Johnson said he and Javid had spoken and reviewed the pandemic data on Sunday and concluded the best option would be to wait a “few more weeks” to deliver another 5 million vaccine doses before easing the remaining rules for England. Separate rules are in place in other parts of the U.K.

The government has put England into a hard lockdown three times since the pandemic began, after relaxations in the rules led cases to surge.

Johnson said the link between cases, hospitalizations and deaths has been “interrupted” -- an “encouraging” sign that the vaccine program is working.

He tried to brush aside questions about the scandal that prompted Matt Hancock to quit as health secretary on Saturday after admitting he broke social-distancing rules.

Asked why he hadn’t fired the minister when the story broke, Johnson suggested he had in fact concluded Hancock should go after learning of the details on Friday.

That prompted reporters to ask whether Hancock resigned or was removed. Johnson’s spokesman later insisted the minister had quit voluntarily.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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