British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set out plans to end social and economic COVID-19 restrictions in England in two weeks’ time, a test of whether a rapid vaccine rollout offers enough protection from the highly contagious Delta variant.
Johnson confirmed the government aimed to end restrictive measures on July 19, with a final decision to be taken next week. He said the step would eliminate formal limits on social contact, the instruction to work from home and mandates to wear face masks.
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After imposing the most onerous constraints on behaviour in Britain’s peacetime history to battle the novel coronavirus, Johnson is betting the vaccination programme, which has weakened the link between infections and hospital admissions, can prevent the health service from being overwhelmed by a new wave of COVID-19.
Confirmed cases have shot up from about 2,000 a day earlier this year to 25,000 a day in the past week. But the number of deaths is broadly stable, at fewer than 20 a day.
Under the plans, nightclubs will be allowed to reopen and there will be no limits on capacity for hospitality venues. Social distancing guidelines will be scrapped.
“We must be honest with ourselves that if we can’t reopen our society in the next few weeks, when we will be helped by the arrival of summer and by the school holidays, then we must ask ourselves when will we be able to return to normal?” Johnson told a news conference on Monday.
“We will move away from legal restrictions and allow people to make their own informed decisions about how to manage the virus,” he added.
Johnson’s government sets health policy for England, but not for Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
Britain has suffered the seventh highest global death toll from COVID-19, and Johnson has been accused of being too slow to implement each of England’s three lockdowns.
But the take-up of vaccines in Britain has been strong, with 86 percent of adults receiving a first dose and 64 percent receiving two doses as of Monday, according to government data.
Public Health England figures indicate that the vaccines are highly effective in preventing the Delta variant from leading to severe illness or hospital admission, after two doses.
‘Very far from end’
Johnson also said that people under 40 would be invited for their second COVID-19 shots from eight weeks after their first dose, rather than 12 weeks, bringing it into line with the policy for over-40s.
He added that while he believed this was the best time to end restrictions, people should still be cautious and that containment measures could be brought back if needed.
“This pandemic is far from over, it certainly won’t be over by the 19th,” Johnson said.
“I didn’t want people to feel that this is, as it were, the moment to get demob happy … it is very far from the end of dealing with this virus,” the prime minister added.
Earlier, the new health minister, Sajid Javid, said the number of infections in Britain will rise significantly from currently levels.
“It’s important that we’re straight with the British people: cases of COVID-19 are rising and they will continue to rise significantly. We can reasonably expect that by the 19th of July, the number of daily cases will be far higher than today,” Javid told parliament.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer criticised the plan, and said that some legal measures, such as the requirement to wear masks on public transport, should be kept in place.
“Simply throwing off all protections when the infection rate is going up is reckless,” he told broadcasters.
The government’s emphasis on personal judgement was met with concern by scientists, who worry that hospitals and medics could be stretched anew if the Delta variant runs amok or new strains emerge.
“Allowing people to make their own choices on this is, effectively, handing control of the safety of such spaces over to the least informed, least caring and indeed the most callous members of society,” said Peter English, former chair of the British Medical Association Public Health Medicine Committee.
England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said he would still wear a mask “in any situation which is indoors and crowded” or “if someone else is uncomfortable as a point of common courtesy”.
And he hinted at possible tension between scientists and ministers, telling a news conference: “Ministers decide, advisers advise.”
A snap YouGov poll, meanwhile, showed that 71 percent of Britons believe face masks should continue to be mandatory on public transport.