COVID-19: Is the third wave of COVID underway in the UK?
- UK scientists warn a COVID-19 third wave is underway in the UK
- Experts urge UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to push back on the fourth stage of the lockdown roadmap date
- Are coronavirus vaccines giving the public a false sense of security?
- What four tests need to be met for the June 21st unlocking to go ahead?
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s COVID lockdown exit strategy has so far gone to plan – with Britons able to enjoy more freedom in March, April and May.
However, the growing spread of the Indian COVID variant is threatening to derail UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans to remove all coronavirus restrictions in the UK from June 21st.
According to the latest coronavirus news, Britain is in a “perilous situation” as the Indian variant, known as B.1.617.2, now accounts for 75% of all UK COVID-19 cases.
On Monday, the UK reported over 3,300 new COVID-19 cases for the sixth successive day – figures unseen since early April.
Although the number of COVID hospitalisations and deaths continue to decline, the UK government is under growing pressure to delay the June 21st unlocking of the economy due to mounting concerns over the more transmissible coronavirus strain.
Mr Johnson has insisted that more data on the Indian variant is needed before the UK government can decide whether to scrap plans to remove all limitations on social contact on June 21st.
However, experts have warned that failure to act now could risk an “explosive” surge in COVID cases.
Opposition politicians have also urged the UK Prime Minister to stay true to his “data, not dates approach”, noting that the spread of the Indian variant falls in line with step four of the government’s assessment.
One scientist said that Britain’s vaccination campaign was masking the true impact of the uptick in coronavirus cases.
Britain’s vaccine rollout is offering a “false sense of security”
According to New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) member Professor Ravi Gupta, Britain is in the early grip of a third COVID wave.
Professor Gupta urged ministers to delay the final coronavirus reopening “by a few weeks” as the infection rate in Britain had surged “exponentially.”
He also said that Britain’s vaccination campaign offered Britons a “false sense of security” and that while it may take longer for the infection rate to rise than earlier waves, all waves start with low numbers.
Prof Gupta believes the UK government is reluctant to delay the scheduled June 21st unlocking due to the country’s high vaccination rate.
While Britain’s vaccination rate is impressive, Prof Gupta has urged the UK Prime Minister to push back the lockdown roadmap date until scientists have gathered more information on the B.1.617.2 variant.
As of June 1st, the UK has administered 64,916,544 COVID vaccines, of which over 39.3 million adults have received one dose and a further 25.5 million people are fully vaccinated.
Over the next month, millions of more people are likely to receive their COVID jabs, especially after a vaccination centre at Twickenham Stadium has begun offering the vaccine to over-18s to prevent wastage.
The UK government will also want to avoid another spike in the infection rate to prevent further pressure on the NHS, which is currently dealing with a lockdown-induced backlog of treatments for non-COVID related illnesses.
According to a survey of members of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), most doctors believe it will take health services more than 18 months to recover from the impact of COVID-19.
Although the UK government has been relatively “hush-hush” about the prospect of the lockdown roadmap being delayed, UK Environment Secretary George Eustice told the BBC that nothing had been ruled out.
His comments followed confirmation that the UK recorded 22,474 cases in the seven days between May 24th and May 30th – more than 25% higher than the previous seven-day spell.
Prof Gupta told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “I don’t believe people are telling the government to abandon the June 21st roadmap date altogether but to delay it by a few weeks until we can look at the trajectory with greater clarity.
“If you look at the costs and benefits of getting it wrong, I think it is heavily in favour of delay.”
Other scientific experts and government advisers have also cautioned about lifting coronavirus restrictions prematurely, raising concerns about the looming COVID third wave.
UK scientists call for June 21st reopening to be delayed
Under the latest round of coronavirus lockdown easing, people can meet under the rule of six or two households in any indoor setting to socialise, dine or have a drink.
Gatherings of up to 30 people are permitted outside, international travel can resume, albeit under a new traffic light system and all indoor hospitality venues can reopen.
Coronavirus lockdown easing has already had a positive impact on critical areas of the UK economy, and several leading think tanks are predicting rapid growth in 2021.
Still, despite encouraging economic indicators and vaccine data, any impact on how the May unlocking has affected cases, hospitalisations or deaths would not become apparent until late June, says a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
Professor Adam Finn said: “It’s unfortunate that everyone is obsessing with the June 21st date, instead of trying to understand the situation and adjust accordingly.”
Prof Finn went onto say that the UK government should be proceeding with caution and wait and see how events play out before scrapping coronavirus lockdown measures to prevent imposing another round of lockdowns later down the line.
Although the British government could press ahead with plans to reopen the country later this month, “they should at least determine how effective our current vaccines are against the Indian variant”, says Professor Robert Read, a fellow JCVI member.
The chief executive of the NHS Providers, Chris Hopson, has also warned ministers that even a slight uptick in daily cases could overwhelm hospitals, many of which are still recovering from the winter-into-spring surge of cases.
Amid calls to postpone coronavirus easing plans, UK Environment Secretary George Eustice said ministers want to monitor the data before deciding on plans to scrap COVID limitations.
When asked whether businesses should prepare for COVID lockdown delays, Mr Eustice stated that as the “pandemic is a difficult and dynamic situation, we can’t rule anything out.”
Mr Eustice told the BBC that ministers would make a final judgement a couple of weeks before the June 21st roadmap date, as only then will they be able to see the full impact of the May 17th COVID easing.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the Council of the British Medical Association (BMA), warned the UK government that a premature ending of social limitations and other preventative measures could spell disaster for the UK.
Dr Nagpaul urged the British government to “act with maximum caution″ or risk undermining our hard-won vaccine success and “our health service’s efforts to tackle the colossal backlog of non-COVID related ailments.”
Still, even if step four of the coronavirus lockdown roadmap goes ahead as planned, social distancing measures and mask-wearing could be in place for longer to help suppress transmission.
So, what could step four of the UK’s lockdown exit roadmap include, and how likely is it to go ahead?
Is the UK’s June 21st unlocking likely to go ahead?
In Step 4 of Britain’s COVID easing strategy, the government aimed to scrap all legal limitations on social contact, meaning that a cohort of people can meet and socialise in indoor or outdoor settings.
Large-sized weddings and funerals will also be allowed to take place under Step 4 of Mr Johnson’s lockdown roadmap strategy.
Shuttered venues such as nightclubs and other night-time entertainment businesses can also reopen, while huge crowds can return to mass events such as festivals, concerts and sports tournaments.
There have already been several government pilots for festivals, which ministers actioned to examine COVID-19 transmission in crowds and determine whether it was safe for audiences to mingle without masks.
However, due to the growing spread of the Indian variant, ministers may decide to backtrack on plans to scrap the one-metre-plus rule or abolish face coverings.
PM Boris Johnson is expected to announce whether the June 21st unlocking will go ahead on June 14th.
While much remains uncertain, given that one of the tests used to determine whether it is safe to go ahead with COVID easing is in jeopardy, it’s too early to say whether this is the end of coronavirus lockdowns.
What tests determine whether it’s safe to ease COVID restrictions?
Under the UK government’s roadmap, any additional easing can only take place if the following four tests are met:
- COVID-19 vaccine deployment is continuing successfully
- Britain’s coronavirus vaccination campaign is effectively reducing the number of hospitalisations and deaths
- The infection rate does not put the NHS under overwhelming pressure
- New coronavirus variants do not pose a risk to the government’s COVID roadmap plans