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COVID-19: Boris Johnson reviews social distancing rules

  • Number of COVID-19 positive tests spike in Britain
  • Britain records 5,647 cases of the Indian variant
  • UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s social distancing announcement delayed
  • Will the UK government delay the lockdown exit on June 21st?

Britons may have to wait longer for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s review of social distancing measures and plans to introduce domestic coronavirus passports due to the rapidly spreading Indian variant.

Although UK PM Boris Johnson promised to announce the expected new measures on social distancing, mask-wearing and pub rules by May-end, the timetable has been pushed back as ministers await the latest Indian variant data.

The UK government decided to hang fire after official data suggested that the Indian variant could become the dominant strain in the UK in the coming days.

Figures released today have already revealed that the Indian COVID variant has overtaken the Kent strain in 44 areas across the country, almost doubling that recorded last week.

The data also showed that the B.1.617.2 variant has spread to 151 of England’s 343 local authorities, including Manchester, Bedford and Bolton.

On Monday, bosses from the Department of Health noted that the number of positive tests in the country, at 2,439, was 23.3% higher than last Monday’s figure.

Separate data from Public Health England (PHE) has also shown that as of May 20th 2021, health officials confirmed 3,424 cases of the Indian variant in Britain, up from 1,313 the previous week and 520 the week before that.

According to the latest data, a total of 5,647 people in the UK have tested positive for India’s B.1.617.2 variant. While the spread appears to be slowing, experts have debated whether the infection rate is plateauing, or a rise will ensue over the coming weeks.

Last week, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock pleaded with Britons to get their COVID jabs out of fear that the B.1.617 variant could become the dominant strain and reverse the country’s hard-won success.

During a House of Commons address, Mr Hancock said: “There is no evidence that suggests that the growing spread of the Indian variant has any signs of slowing.”

Although the number of hospitalisations and deaths in the UK have decreased substantially, “the variant will more than likely overtake the Kent strain if it hasn’t already,” said the UK Health Secretary.

Currently, the average number of hospitalisations in the UK is 100 a day – far lower than levels seen during the peak of the second COVID wave, when almost 5,000 people were being admitted every day.

However, the Indian variant could threaten the NHS and the broader lockdown exit strategy if it proves to be highly transmissible.

In Bolton, where the highest number of Indian COVID cases have been recorded, hospitalisations are already rising.

Currently, there are 43 people hospitalised with COVID-19 in Bolton’s hospital, and according to data from the British government, the number has tripled since the start of May.

Experts fear that failure to tackle the issue swiftly could lead to an increase in the coronavirus death toll as another outbreak would ramp up pressure on Bolton’s NHS Foundation Trust.

However, Matt Hancock is confident that the June 21st reopening will go ahead if Britons continue to get their COVID vaccines.

The UK in a race to vaccinate as Indian variant spreads

Scientists have warned the UK government that Britain is entering a crucial period as the race between coronavirus vaccination and the spread of the Indian COVID variant inflames.

According to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), the B.1.617 variant could be 50% more transmissible than the Kent strain.

Public Health England has also published data suggesting the Indian mutation is more infectious than other variants of the Coronavirus.

However, PHE found that fully vaccinated people will receive a similar degree of protection against the B.1.617 strain as they would the Kent mutation.

Although scientists are still researching the new COVID variant, news that two doses of an AstraZeneca or Pfizer jab can reduce severe risk has calmed fears over spiralling hospitalisations and deaths.

According to official data, the AstraZeneca jab is more than 60% effective against severe disease from the Indian COVID strain. In comparison, research showed that the Pfizer COVID vaccine offered up to 88% protection against severe disease.

Professor Luke O’Neil from the School of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity College Dublin also said that anyone who has caught COVID-19 before would have developed antibodies that will fight against new strains of the virus.

During a televised talk show broadcast, Prof O’Neil said: “You may catch the virus if it is a new variant, but it won’t progress into severe disease if you have coronavirus antibodies.

“That is the most important thing because, as we always say, we don’t invent vaccines to stop you from getting the sniffles; we invent them to stop you developing severe disease.”

According to official findings, one dose of Pfizer or AstraZeneca’s vaccine is 33% effective against preventing severe COVID-19 symptoms, compared with 50% against the Kent variant.

Downing Street also confirmed that Britons hospitalised with the disease were either unvaccinated or had only received their first COVID jab – highlighting the importance of receiving both vaccine doses.

Separate news has also revealed that Brits keen to travel to Europe can holiday in 18 “amber-listed” European destinations without having to self-isolate upon arrival.

Thousands of Brits travel to Spain and other European destinations

Despite warnings from the UK government against holidays in “amber” listed destinations, thousands of Britons have headed to Spain today and other European countries that have relaxed travel restrictions for the summer.

As of May 25th 2021, the following countries are welcoming UK tourists without mandating quarantine on arrival:

  • Albania
  • Armenia
  • Bulgaria
  • Croatia
  • Cyprus
  • Estonia
  • Greece
  • Italy
  • Kosovo
  • Malta
  • Moldova
  • Montenegro
  • North Macedonia
  • San Marino
  • Serbia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Ukraine

Although returning passengers will have to quarantine at home for ten days and take a COVID test on day two and eight of their self-isolation period, British holidaymakers have not been dissuaded from travel.

However, other European member states such as France and Germany – which depend less on tourism to boost output – are preparing to impose more stringent measures against Britain due to fears over the rapidly spreading Indian variant.

France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said that while Britain will not be placed on the red list, travellers from the UK will face stricter sanitary measures when arriving in the country.

Fears over the uptick in the more dangerous coronavirus B.1.617.2 variant has also seen Downing Street signal a possible delay to the fourth stage of lockdown lifting announcement.

During a No.10 briefing this week, Mr Johnson said that he would announce new social distancing rules and other coronavirus measures when ministers have assessed the latest data on the Indian mutation.

Lockdown lifting roadmap

Boris Johnson lockdown lifting announcement delayed

Boris Johnson promised to unveil coronavirus lockdown lifting plans ahead of the June 21st exit to give businesses time to prepare for the changes.

Mr Johnson said he was considering scrapping the one-metre plus social distancing rule to allow pubs, bars and restaurants to operate at larger capacity and restrictions on weddings and mass events, such as festivals, to be lifted.

However, the announcement may well be delayed as ministers are currently considering COVID-19 data.

So, when will the British government scrap social distancing and mask-wearing rules? Will our nightclubs reopen, and will mass events be able to go ahead?

Up until May 17th, Britons were prohibited from meeting anyone outside of their household or support bubbles indoors and could meet under the rule of six outdoors.

From May 17th, the UK government reduced limitations on social gathering and allowed Britons to exercise “personal judgement” on close contact with others.

While hugging loved ones is currently allowed, the Prime Minister has warned people to be cautious around those that are more vulnerable to COVID-19, irrespective of whether they are vaccinated.

On Monday, a Downing Street spokesperson told reporters that the review on social distancing rules would be published “as soon as possible based on the latest scientific data, which will help inform us what measures we can take around COVID passports.”

When questioned about why UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson chose to delay the announcement, the representative said that Mr Johnson is taking the time to gain information on the new variant before making a final decision.

The chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA), Emma McClarkin, warned the UK government about delaying COVID lockdown lifting, arguing that bars and pubs are already struggling to survive.

She told MPs: “Our businesses will not start their journeys to recovery until all restrictions are removed – June 21 has to be the date that all restrictions fall away.

“Any lingering restrictions would put in jeopardy our pubs and brewers.”

While no set date has been offered, the review on social distancing rules, mask-wearing and COVID-19 certification is expected to be delivered ahead of the final step in the Prime Minister’s lockdown lifting roadmap, which is scheduled for June 21st.

Although the rapidly spreading Indian variant has become a cause for concern, ministers appear to be relatively optimistic about the prospect of the UK’s final unlocking going ahead in June.

If all COVID-19 restrictions are lifted on June 21st, Britons would be allowed to return to nightclubs without the need to social distance or wear face coverings.

However, Brits may have to wait until next month to receive any details as officials continue to pore over the latest Indian variant data.

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