LONDON (AP) — All remaining lockdown restrictions in England will be lifted in a week despite a sharp rise in coronavirus cases, Britain’s health secretary said Monday, adding it’s the right time to allow Britons a chance to return to normal life.
Sajid Javid told Parliament that Britain’s successful vaccine rollout means that nine out of 10 adults in the U.K. now have antibodies against the virus. The government is on track to meet its target of offering all adults a first vaccine dose by July 19, the day when all remaining lockdown restrictions, including mandatory mask-wearing, are set to be lifted.
As of Monday, 87% of the U.K.’s adult population have had their first dose, and 66% have had both doses. At the same time infections have soared in recent weeks, running at over 30,000 new cases daily, driven by the delta variant.
Javid said while new infections could reach 100,000 a day later in the summer, two doses of the vaccine offer effective protection against serious illness from the virus and officials believe the surge in cases will not put “unsustainable pressure” on hospitals. Waiting any longer to lift restrictions will risk having the virus spread peak in the winter, when hospitals are most likely to be overwhelmed, he added.
“There will never be a perfect time to take this step, because we simply cannot eradicate this virus — whether we like it or not, coronavirus is not going away,” he said.
Many of the infections have occurred among younger people, many of whom have yet to receive a first dose of vaccine. The government has no plans yet to offer vaccines to children under 18.
The British government believes that the vaccine rollout has severely disrupted the link between infections and those needing hospitalization. The numbers of people requiring hospitalization or dying from COVID-19 have stayed low and broadly stable, though they have been edging up in recent days.
Still, concerns over the rapid increase in cases has piled pressure on the government to take a more cautious approach over lifting restrictions.
Jonathan Ashworth, the health spokesperson for the opposition Labour Party, said Javid’s plan was akin to “pushing his foot down on the accelerator while throwing the seat belts off.”
The government has said the final stage in lifting lockdown rules means that all restrictions on social gatherings will be removed and social distancing measures will be scrapped. Nightclubs can reopen for the first time since March last year, but will be encouraged to only let in people who can show a negative test or have been double-jabbed.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last week that Britons must now learn to live with the virus, and legal requirements to wear masks and other measures will shift to a reliance on “personal responsibility.”
Public health officials and scientists have been voicing concerns, saying ditching masks and social distancing altogether could be dangerous.
Professor Peter Openshaw, a member of a group that advises the government on new and emerging respiratory viruses, said it was vital to keep some protective measures in place, such as wearing masks.
“I really don’t see why people are reluctant to wear face coverings, it is quite clear that they do greatly reduce transmission,” he told BBC radio. “Vaccines are fantastic but you have to give them time to work. And in the meantime, keeping up all those measures which we have learned to reduce the transmission is to me really vital.”
The British government, which enforced one of the longest lockdowns in the world, has lifted restrictions for England in a series of steps that began with reopening schools in March. The fourth and final stage was delayed last month to provide time for more people to be vaccinated amid the rapid spread of the delta variant.
Other parts of the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — are following their own, broadly similar, road maps out of lockdown.