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U.K.’s Boris Johnson Delays End of England’s Lockdown as Cases Surge

EconomyJun 14, 2021 18:29
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2/2 © Bloomberg. A worker carries chairs outside a bar in London, U.K., on Monday, June 14, 2021. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is preparing to delay his plan to lift England's pandemic restrictions amid concerns that a rapid rise in Covid-19 cases could put hospitals under strain. 2/2

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Boris Johnson pushed back his plan to lift England’s coronavirus restrictions for at least another four weeks to try to prevent “thousands” more deaths and a surge in hospitalizations.

The government was forced to act after modeling showed hospital admissions could reach similar levels to the pandemic’s first wave of infections in spring 2020 -- a peak of 3,099 a day -- if Johnson stuck to his schedule to end social-distancing rules on June 21.

In a televised press conference on Monday, Johnson said he had no choice but to delay his plan until July 19 at the earliest, to allow more people to get their second vaccine dose.

“As things stand, and on the evidence I can see right now, I’m confident that we will not need more than four weeks,” Johnson said. “By being cautious now, we have the chance in the next four weeks to save many thousands of lives by vaccinating millions of people.”

The government is expected to put the delay to a debate and vote on Wednesday in Parliament, where Johnson is likely to face anger from Conservative colleagues for backtracking on what they dubbed “Freedom Day.”

Johnson had initially planned to drop all legal limits on social contact this month, under step four of his “roadmap” out of lockdown. That would have meant nightclubs reopening, people lining up at the bar again, full stadiums and big conferences back in the diaries.

There was a reprieve for weddings: the 30-person limit will be lifted to allow an unlimited number of guests, as long as there is no dancing and social distancing is respected.

Variant Risk

Covid cases have been rising rapidly, fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant first identified in India.

It’s now dominant in Britain. Infections in England are growing 70% every week nationally, Johnson’s spokesman, Max Blain, told reporters on Monday, and in around a third of the country they are doubling every week. That’s pushing up hospital admissions by 15% week-on-week, and by 66% in northwest England.

The emergence of the delta variant has forced a change in thinking on the vaccine rollout, which previously prioritized first doses to protect the most number of people as fast as possible.

But data show the importance of the second dose against the delta variant, with a single shot offering just 33% protection compared with 50% against the previously dominant alpha variant, according to Public Health England.

New analysis from PHE released Monday found that two doses of Pfizer-BioNTech offer 96% protection against hospitalization, and 92% for the Oxford University-AstraZeneca shot.

“Vaccine effectiveness, especially after two doses, means thousands more deaths can be prevented if more people are jabbed,” Blain said.

U.K.’s Johnson Faces Lockdown Dilemma as Covid Cases Rise

Almost 57% of all U.K. adults have received two vaccine doses so far -- leaving more than four in 10 people without maximum protection. The government aims to push this number to two thirds of the adult population by the time restrictions are lifted on July 19.

Vaccine Rollout

To speed the vaccine rollout, the interval between shots for people aged over 40 will also be reduced from 12 weeks to eight weeks: all over-40s who had a first dose by mid-May will be offered their second dose by the week starting July 19, Johnson’s office said.

Everyone aged over 50 or with an underlying health condition, plus carers and health workers, will be offered a second dose by July 19, and all over-18s will be offered a first dose.

The government will review the data again on June 28, with the possibility of easing restrictions on July 5 if it looks better than expected, but this is considered unlikely. Still, Johnson is “confident” that restrictions can be lifted on July 19, Blain said.

With businesses calling for rules to be eased, the government said there will be no restriction on guest numbers at wedding ceremonies and receptions, or at funeral receptions known as wakes. But social-distancing rules will apply, with tables of six and no dancing or singing allowed.

There will be no change in financial support for businesses hit by lockdown measures, Blain told reporters. “At the budget we deliberately extended most support well into the autumn, acknowledging there could be uncertainty over the path of the virus,” he said.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s flagship job support program, paying as much as 80% of the wages of furloughed workers, is set to run until the end of September. It’s also set to taper, though, with employers meeting 10% of the wages in July, and 20% in August and September.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

U.K.’s Boris Johnson Delays End of England’s Lockdown as Cases Surge

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