After the government announced a planned lifting of coronavirus lockdown restrictions on 19th July, the Prime Minister warned that we would have to learn to live with coronavirus, and that there was bound to be a rise in infections when restrictions were lifted.
With the proposed end of social distancing guidelines such as the two-metre rule, restrictions on the number of people in retail premises and the requirement to wear face masks indoors will come a greater emphasis on ‘personal responsibility’ rather than government mandate.
While the build-up of immunity due to the vaccination process has been a success, there will still be those who have not or will not be vaccinated, and those, perhaps with compromised immune systems, who cannot, or for whom vaccination is ineffective.
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It’s they who will probably be the subjects of the next wave of infections – and as some who have been sheltering due to medical vulnerability point out, wearing a mask isn’t for your benefit, it’s for the benefit of others you may infect. Choosing not to wear a mask may not expose you to greater risk, but it may spread infection to others who are more vulnerable.
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The easing of restrictions comes at a time when data from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that over half of the 10 worst COVID hotspots in Europe are in the UK – and these are of the Delta variant originating in India, thought to be more infectious and more harmful than others such as the Alpha variant originating in Kent.
Hans Kluge, the regional director of WHO Europe, said that a fourth wave of coronavirus could break out by the autumn, because of “new variants, deficit in vaccine uptake and increased social mixing”.
According to the WHO report, the top 10 European COVID hotspots in the week up to July 7th were:
- Tayside, UK: 687 cases
- North East, UK: 616 cases
- Lothian: 574 cases
- Nur-Sultan City, Kazakhstan: 496 cases
- Greater Glasgow and Clyde, UK: 490 cases
- Cyprus: 424 cases
- Fife, UK: 422 cases
- North West, UK: 411 cases
- Chui, Kyrgyztan: 403 cases
- Algarve, Portugal: 361 cases
The North East shows the highest number of cases in England, 616, and the North West features too with 411 cases, but Scotland has four areas in the top 10 – Tayside, Lothian, Greater Glasgow and Clyde & Fife, with a combined total of 2,173 positive test results.
The south of England does not currently feature in the Top 10 COVID hotspots at all, which may be what has prompted the government to proceed with plans for a loosening of restrictions. No wonder then that Scotland is setting its own agenda, with some low ‘Level 0’ restrictions being maintained on July 19th, and planned to stay in place until August 9th at least.
The situation in Wales is less clear, as ministers have decided not to announce further steps until July 14th. There doesn’t seem to be any hurry to relax restrictions there though, with Welsh Labour Minister for Health Nicky Morgan saying that the Welsh government will be “following the data rather than following the politics” when it considers whether rules should be eased in the near future, and Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford reminded people that the changes announced by Boris Johnson “will apply to England only”.
The Stormont Executive is set to review progress in Northern Ireland on July 8th.
Despite the WHO data, England’s ‘Freedom Day’ is set for July 19th, and there have already been relaxations of restrictions on live music events, and the number of households permitted to meet outdoors. From the 19th, it’s expected that all regulations regarding social contact and the wearing of face coverings will be abolished, all remaining businesses will be able to reopen, and bars and restaurants will no longer be restricted to table service only.
The advice to ‘work from home if possible’ will also be removed, with employers having to make their own decisions about when, how and if they want to enforce a safe return to work.
The rules will also change for those who have been required to self-isolate, with new Health Minister Sajid Javid stating that from August 16th, anyone who has had two vaccinations will no longer be required to self-isolate if they come into contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus.
But Chief Medical Officer Sir Michael McBride says that the country has already entered a ‘fourth wave’, and warned that cases will increase rapidly if people do not follow public health advice and take up the offer of a vaccine. The Health Minister has estimated that be later in the summer there could be 100,000 new COVID cases per day as restrictions are relaxed.
During Prime Minister’s Question Time, Boris Johnson claimed that the vaccination programme had “severed” the link between rising cases and deaths, despite Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance saying earlier this week that the relationship had been weakened, rather than severed.
Answering a question from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, Boris Johnson said: “It is certainly true that we are seeing a wave of cases because of the Delta variant, but scientists are also absolutely clear that we have severed the link between infection and serious disease and death.
“Currently there are only one-30th of the deaths that we were seeing at an equivalent position in previous waves of this pandemic, which has been made possible thanks to the vaccine roll-out, the fastest of any European country.”