England’s ‘unlockdown’ will be delayed by four weeks, Boris Johnson has confirmed.
It was originally hoped that by June 21, all legal limits on social contact could be removed. Any businesses that had remained closed, like nightclubs, were also due to reopen and crowd restrictions on large events and performances were set to be eased.
But with recent rises in the Delta variant across much of the UK, the date is being pushed back until July 19.
Why is England’s lockdown being extended?
On June 11, the British Medical Association (BMA) warned the fourth stage of the roadmap shouldn’t go ahead until there’s a better understanding of the implications of the rapidly rising number of cases.
Last week, cases of the Delta variant tripled, rising to 42,323 in England. Weekly data published by Public Health England (PHE) found the variant, which first originated in India, now accounts for 90% of UK cases.
Data collection company Norstat surveyed 2,000 people in the UK on June 11 and found just 13% feel the UK should come out of lockdown. One in five think restrictions should ease in July, while one in three think it should happen later in the year and 15% believe we should wait until 2022, the survey revealed.
How much impact will a four-week delay have?
The thinking is it buys time to see whether the rise in Covid cases leads to a surge in hospitalisations and deaths. Evidence in hotspot areas is already showing increases in hospitalisations and the number of patients in intensive care nationally is twice the lowest level achieved last summer, states the BMA.
While the number of patients in hospital with Covid-19 is considered to be low, even a slight increase in that number could significantly impact NHS services, which are now catching up on treating an enormous backlog of patients.
Another reason to delay is to get more people vaccinated. A wait of four weeks could make a difference to the number of people over 50 who have been given two doses and therefore have maximum protection, as well as giving people in their 20s and 30s more time to have their first dose.
The Delta variant is more resistant to the vaccine, so a second dose is important for full protection – but protection doesn’t properly kick in until two weeks after having the second jab.
Health minister Edward Argar said the one month delay could mean another 10 million second doses could be issued. “If we’re going at a run rate of about 250,000 to 300,000 second jabs being done each day, a month gives you roughly 10 million,” he told BBC Breakfast.
Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, also told BBC Breakfast “buying extra weeks will provide greater protection and greater assurance”, allowing more adults to get a first or second dose of the vaccine.
Former chief scientific adviser Professor Sir Mark Walport told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It is a race between the vaccination and virus, and another four weeks makes a significant difference.
“But I think it also will help us establish the extent to which the vaccination breaks or weakens the link between getting infection and getting the sort of serious effects of ending up in hospital, or potentially dying.”
The four-week delay would mean students – who remain unvaccinated – will no longer be in school when restrictions are finally eased, as the summer holidays will be underway.
The BMA suggests delaying unlockdown could also benefit workers – especially those in the events sector, who have been waiting for the last phase of unlockdown to be able to head back to work. It said the risk posed to the economy, education, businesses and welfare would be greater with a premature end to restrictions if it resulted in further illness and lockdowns.
“Workplaces and employers will also be affected if rapid spread in the community resulted in staff becoming ill or needing to self-isolate,” it said.
On top of that, an estimated million people are already suffering with long Covid – and with cases rising, there’s potential for many more to be impacted, including children.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the BMA Council, said: “With only 54.2% of the adult population currently fully vaccinated and many younger people not yet eligible, there is a huge risk that prematurely relaxing all restrictions will undo the excellent work of the vaccine programme and lead to a surge of infections.
“It’s not just about the number of hospitalisations, but also the risk to the health of large numbers of younger people, who can suffer long-term symptoms affecting their lives and ability to work.”
What restrictions are still in place in England?
Despite the delay, Boris Johnson announced the 30-guest limit on weddings will be lifted. Other than that, people will need to abide by the rule of six indoors, and socialise with a maximum of 30 people outdoors. Travel is still very much limited by the traffic light system.
People are still urged to “remain cautious about the risks that come with close personal contact” – and have a choice on whether to socially distance with close family and friends.