A Covid-19 Temporary Restrictions sign seen in Old Compton Street, Soho, in London.
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Despite much fanfare over its rapid vaccination program and the unlocking of coronavirus restrictions in recent months, the U.K. could be about to delay its much-vaunted lifting of all lockdown measures in England on June 21.
Concerns around the “Delta” variant of the virus, the mutation originally discovered in India, have grown in recent weeks with the number of cases attributed to the variant, and hospitalizations, rising — particularly among the not-yet vaccinated and in northwest England and Scotland.
The U.K. government is expected to decide over the next few days whether to delay the lifting of restrictions in England on June 21, which had been “Freedom Day” and the date when the government hoped to “be in a position to remove all legal limits on social contact.”
“Step 4” of the lifting of restrictions is meant to see more premises allowed to reopen, including nightclubs, and restrictions on large events and performances removed.
But several high profile officials and health experts have signaled that the government could, and should, delay the June 21 lifting given the spread of the Delta variant which has provoked a sharp uptick in infections.
In the last seven days, 38,679 people have tested positive for Covid-19, up 14.5% on the previous seven days, government data shows.
Deaths remain low but have also risen from a low base; in the last seven days, 72 people have died within 28 days of a positive test result, up 29 from the previous week.
Nationally, hospitalizations remain manageable as there are currently just under 1,000 people in hospitals with Covid, far below a peak of almost 40,000 in January, although hospital admissions have risen in Scotland and the northwest of England.
A final decision on the delaying of the June 21 date is due next Monday but it’s now widely expected that there will be a two-to-four week delay to the easing of remaining restrictions.
In the meantime, the government has stepped up its vaccination and testing drive in the worse-affected parts of the country, even bringing the army in to help deliver extra tests. The U.K.’s vaccination drive has been widely praised and is one of the fastest in the world.
So far, 77% of U.K. adults have received a first dose of a vaccine and almost 54% have received two doses. The 25-29 age group is currently in line to receive their shots.
There is a rush to fully vaccinate as many people as possible, although younger people are at less risk from the coronavirus, given that the Delta variant is thought to be at least 40% more transmissible than the Alpha variant, the U.K.’s health secretary has said, although he added that two doses of a Covid vaccine remain effective against the variant.
The variant is now becoming the dominant strain in the U.K. after having supplanted a previous variant, the Alpha variant (previously known as the “Kent” strain) that was discovered in the southeast of the U.K. last year.
Jim Reid, head of thematic research and fundamental credit strategy at Deutsche Bank, noted on Wednesday that “there are still some concerning signs on the pandemic ahead of the important decision next week on whether to fully relax restrictions in England, as more than 6,000 daily cases were reported for the second time in the last 5 days.”
“Cases are now up +61% over the last week, albeit still at comparatively low levels relative to the winter months.”