LONDON, July 5 (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was due on Monday to set out plans to end social and economic COVID-19 restrictions in England, in a test of whether a rapid vaccine rollout offers enough protection from the highly contagious Delta variant.
Johnson’s announcement at 1600 GMT is expected to confirm that he aims to end restrictive measures on July 19, and will include guidance on social distancing, face coverings and working from home.
After imposing the most onerous constraints on behaviour in Britain’s peacetime history to battle the novel coronavirus, Johnson is betting that the vaccination programme, which has weakened the link between infections and hospital admissions, can prevent the health service being overwhelmed by a new wave that has already begun.
Johnson is expected to say that people will learn to live with COVID as they do already with flu.
“I must stress that the pandemic is not over and that cases will continue to rise over the coming weeks,” he said in a statement.
“As we begin to learn to live with this virus, we must all continue to carefully manage the risks from COVID and exercise judgement when going about our lives.”
Johnson sets health policy for England, but not for Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
Britain has suffered the seventh highest global death toll from COVID-19, and Johnson has been accused of being too slow to implement each of England’s three lockdowns.
But the take-up of vaccines in Britain has been strong, with 86% of adults receiving a first dose and 64% receiving two doses as of Sunday, according to government data.
Meanwhile countries such as Australia, where case numbers are lower but vaccination has been much slower, are tightening restrictions.
OPEN UP BRITAIN
Cases of COVID-19 have risen sharply in Britain in recent weeks, driven by the now-dominant Delta variant, and the final easing of restrictions was delayed by four weeks to enable more people to be vaccinated.
Public Health England figures indicate that the vaccines are highly effective in preventing the Delta variant leading to severe illness or hospital admission.
“The NHS (health service) will be able to cope with any increase that we see in admissions,” Stephen Powis, NHS England’s National Medical Director, told Sky News.
Housing minister Robert Jenrick said on Sunday that face masks would no longer be mandatory after the final easing, but many doctors and scientists urged more caution. read more
“It makes no sense to stop wearing face masks amongst the public in closed public settings such as public transport,” Chaand Nagpaul, Chair of the Council of the British Medical Association trade union, told BBC radio, adding their main purpose was to protect others, not the wearer.
In a weekend newspaper article, Health minister Sajid Javid flagged both the economic and health costs of continuing restrictions, a view also cited on the streets of London.
“There’s still cases, but … not very many people seem to be suffering with it so much,” said Mandy Suiter, 50, a secretary.
“I think the economy and everyone’s mental health is suffering a lot more. So open up Britain, Boris.”
Reporting by Paul Sandle and Alistair Smout; additional reporting by Natalie Thomas and Ben Dangerfield; editing by Barbara Lewis and Kevin Liffey