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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the next step out of lockdown must be taken “with a heavy dose of caution” as more coronavirus restrictions are lifted on Monday.
As the bans on international travel and households mixing indoors are relaxed, the National Health Service mobile app has started showing individuals’ vaccine status, a key step in the development of so-called Covid passports that will be key to enabling foreign trips.
But the government is concerned that the highly transmissible virus strain that originated in India could lead to a major surge in cases, and is accelerating the vaccine rollout to people aged 35 and over this week in an attempt to contain the new variant.
Johnson has already warned that the final stage of lifting restrictions, due on June 21, may be delayed amid rising concerns over the India strain, as he urged the public to use Monday’s freedoms with care.
“We are keeping the spread of the variant first identified in India under close observation and taking swift action where infection rates are rising,” Johnson said in a statement released by his office. “The current data does not indicate unsustainable pressure on the NHS and our extraordinary vaccination program will accelerate – with second doses being bought forward to give the most vulnerable maximum protection.”
Johnson is facing demands from within his own Conservative Party to stick to his planned timetable for lifting the lockdown — or even speed it up in the light of a successful vaccination rollout. For businesses such as nightclubs, which are being required to wait until next month at the earliest to reopen, the threat of another surge in infections is a major worry.
On Sunday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock cited “new very early data” from Oxford University that shows vaccines do appear to work against the India strain, which government medical advisers have said may be 40-50% easier to transmit. It’s not yet known how much more transmissible the strain is, Hancock said in an interview with Sky News. Government medical advisers have said it may be 40% to 50% easier to pass on.
Hancock warned that it could “spread like wildfire among the unvaccinated groups” and urged people to come forward for shots when eligible. “We have a high degree of confidence that the vaccine will overcome” the disease, he said, citing positive “new very early data” from Oxford University.
Oxford University professor John Bell confirmed that vaccines appear to work against the new variant. “In terms of severe disease, hospital admissions and death, the vaccinated population are going to be fine, and we just need to pump our way through this,” he told Times Radio.
The U.K. will offer inoculations to people aged 35 and over this week, Hancock told the BBC. “It’s about going as fast as we possibly can nationwide,” he said. Almost 70% of the adult population had at least one dose as of May 14 and 37% have had two shots.
The number of confirmed infections of the B.1.617.2 variant more than doubled in the past week from 520 to 1,313, according to Public Health England. A cluster of cases in the northwestern English towns of Bolton, Blackburn and Darwen has prompted the government to deploy the army to assist in testing and vaccination efforts.
Hancock said he couldn’t rule out local measures to contain outbreaks. “The approach we’re taking in Bolton and Blackburn is to absolutely pile in testing and vaccinations to try to get on top of this,” he told Sky.
He defended the timing of the government’s restrictions on travel from India. “The evidence we had at the time was that the positivity of people coming from India was low at the start of April,” Hancock said. “When we saw it rising, we brought in the ‘red list’ restrictions. That was before we knew about this new variant.”