New variant fear clouds UK move to lift lockdown
Travelers in England were packing their bags, bartenders were polishing their glasses and performers were warming up as Britain prepared on Sunday for a major step out of lockdown — but with clouds of worry on the horizon.
Excitement at the reopening of travel and hospitality vied with anxiety that a more contagious coronavirus variant first found in India is spreading fast and could delay further plans to reopen.
Cases of the variant have more than doubled in a week in the United Kingdom, defying a sharp nationwide downward trend in infections and deaths won by hard-earned months of restrictions and a rapid vaccination campaign. A surge testing and stepped-up vaccination effort was being conducted in the northern England areas hardest hit by that variant.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the variant, known as B.1.617.2, is more transmissible than the UK’s main strain and “it is likely it will become the dominant variant.”
“This isn’t over yet,” Hancock told the BBC yesterday. “The virus has just gained a bit of pace and we’ve therefore all got to be that bit much more careful and cautious.”
Today, people in England will be able to eat a restaurant meal indoors, drink inside a pub, go to a museum, hug friends and visit one another’s homes for the first time in months. A ban on overseas holidays is also being lifted, with travel now possible to a shortlist of countries with low infection rates. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are following similar but slightly different reopening paths.
Patrick Dardis, chief executive of brewery and pub chain Young’s, said the indoor opening — which follows the reopening of outdoor patios and beer gardens last month — is “a big step back on to the path to normality.”
“The weather has been pretty dire, and people are hardy, but we really needed this next step to come,” he said.
But hospitality and entertainment venues say they won’t be able to make money until they can open at full capacity. That’s due to happen on June 21, the date set by the government for lifting its remaining COVID-19 curbs, including social distancing and mask-wearing rules.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said if the new variant causes a big surge in cases, it could scupper that plan.
Britain has recorded almost 128,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest reported toll in Europe. But new infections have plummeted to an average of around 2,000 a day, compared with nearly 70,000 a day during the winter peak, and deaths have fallen to single figures a day.
Almost 70 percent of British adults have received a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and more than 37 percent have had both doses.
Health officials, backed by the army, are carrying out surge testing in Bolton and Blackburn in northwest England, where cases of the new variant are clustered, and pop-up vaccination sites have been set up to speed the inoculation drive.
Hancock said scientists had a “high degree of confidence” that current vaccines work against the Indian-identified variant.
Critics of the Conservative government say lax border rules allowed the new variant to enter the country. They accuse the government of delaying a ban on visitors from virus-hit India because it is seeking a trade deal with the vast country.