Britain has taken what many scientists fear is a giant leap into the unknown after the government ditched all pandemic restrictions across much of the country – despite an increase in infections which some experts say could reach 200,000 per day this summer.
No other country has gone so far in removing COVID-19 measures in the face of such a rapid rise in infections. The Delta variant has taken the number of new daily cases in the UK to above 50,000 in recent days, reaching levels not seen since the peak of the health crisis in January.
Nonetheless, on Monday, the government lifted remaining measures in England, including laws on mandatory masks and limits on the number of people allowed in cinemas, theaters and sports stadiums. Rules restricting pubs to table service have also been removed and nightclubs have reopened for the first time since March 2020. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which run their own healthcare systems, are relaxing also restrictions but at a slower pace.
Some health experts fear that ending the restrictions could lead to an even bigger wave of infections and hospitalizations. Health Secretary Sajid Javid said new daily cases could reach 100,000 this summer, while Imperial College epidemiologist Neil Ferguson said it could be worse. “The real question is whether we can double that – or even more,” Dr Ferguson told the BBC on Sunday.
“We’re heading into the biggest wave of COVID infection we’ve ever seen and while the vaccine will dramatically reduce deaths and hospitalizations, it’s still likely we’ll see somewhere in the dozen or so. thousands of deaths even if we are careful, ”added Andrew Hayward, epidemiologist at University College London.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted at a press conference on Monday that easing restrictions would increase the rate of infection and lead to more hospitalizations and deaths. But he argued that Britain’s high vaccination rate – more than two-thirds of adults have received two doses – should allow the National Health Service to cope.
“We want people to be able to take back their freedoms,” Mr Johnson said. “We want this country to be able to enjoy the fruits of our massive efforts and our huge vaccination campaign. “
But to show how far the increase in the number of cases has gone, Mr Johnson was forced into isolation because he came into contact with Mr Javid, who tested positive for the virus over the weekend. last end.
Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said hospitalizations could drop from less than 800 a day to 1,000 or more. However, he said, that would still be well below the January figures, which topped 4,000 on some days. Likewise, the number of deaths could rise from around 50 to 100 per day, which would also be lower than the 1,400 daily deaths reported in January. “The opening [of the economy] in a growing wave carries specific risks of increased infection, which are then mitigated by the presence of vaccinations, ”Sir Patrick said on Monday.
Mr Johnson also argued that delaying the final lifting of restrictions would only push the current wave into the fall, when the NHS is grappling with the seasonal flu. “If we don’t open up now, we risk seeing even more difficult conditions during the colder months,” he said. “There comes a point after so many people have been vaccinated, when new restrictions no longer prevent hospitalizations and deaths but simply delay the inevitable. “
Before the Delta variant took hold of the UK in April, the Prime Minister called July 19 “freedom day” and said the government’s plan to ease restrictions was irreversible.
On Monday, he took a more cautious tone and said he couldn’t guarantee that the roadmap to emerge from the pandemic would not be reversed. He also said that from September vaccination certificates will be mandatory for crowded places such as nightclubs. “We must be humble in the face of nature,” he said.
Other countries have been less willing to go as far as Britain. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said over the weekend that the restrictions would remain in place until more people were vaccinated. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said last week his government lifted restrictions too early and reimposed some measures due to an increase in infections. And on Monday, in a blow to the UK, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Americans against travel to Britain due to the rise in COVID cases. 19 there.
Britain is also taking a different approach to immunizing children. As Canada and several other countries have paved the way for vaccinating all 12-18 year olds, UK Vaccine Deployment Minister Nadhim Zahawi said on Monday that only certain children will be vaccinated. Vaccinations will be offered to adolescents with neurological disorders, such as Down syndrome, as well as to those living with an immunocompromised person.
Jeremy Brown, government adviser and professor of respiratory infection at University College London, said the decision was largely based on the fact that most children do not become seriously ill with COVID-19. He also cited the high level of vaccination in Britain.
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