Back in the depths of winter, Boris Johnson promised people in England that they would be able to celebrate Christmas with their families, only for his overambitious plans to be wrecked by a new coronavirus variant that rapidly spread across the nation to become the dominant strain.
Now, less than four weeks from the date when the prime minister promised that all legal pandemic restrictions would be lifted for good, he has warned people to brace for bitter disappointment once again.
Despite a hugely successful vaccination rollout—that, to date, has seen 38 million people receive at least one dose—a new variant first identified in India has become dominant in Britain, and is threatening Johnson’s plan to lift all coronavirus restrictions on June 21. Speaking Thursday, Johnson said “we may need to wait” for the grand reopening.
For the next few weeks, Britain will effectively become a mass experiment to see how the virus transmits among a partially vaccinated population—and the results will be watched closely in the United States as it begins to bring its own coronavirus restrictions to an end. The U.S. has found more than 800 cases of the variant from India to date.
Case numbers in Britain remain low, but they’re going in the wrong direction. Over 3,500 new COVID cases were recorded in the four nations of the United Kingdom on Thursday. That was the highest figure seen since the end of March, and, on average, case numbers are up by slightly over 20 percent when compared to the week previous. The new variant is thought to account for around three-quarters of these new infections, and 6,959 cases of the variant have been confirmed across Britain.
Figures released Friday showed England’s coronavirus R rate—the number of people that one infected person will typically pass on a virus to—has risen to between 1.0 and 1.1 for the first time since January, meaning that the virus’ spread is officially no longer declining in the country.
Public-health authorities will now watch closely to see if the rise in case numbers causes a spike in deaths and hospitalizations, or if the vaccine rollout has broken that link. Ten deaths were recorded Thursday, which is still among the lowest numbers recorded throughout the pandemic, but some areas recorded slight increases in hospital admissions.
There’s no reason to believe that the variant seen in India is any more deadly, but it does appear to transmit more easily than previous strains. However, the variant’s spread has coincided with a partial relaxation of coronavirus rules throughout the United Kingdom, and Johnson said his public-health experts always expected a rise in cases when that happened.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, declared Thursday night that the vaccine was “severing the link between cases and hospitalizations,” but most people under 35 have yet to be offered a vaccine, and no vaccine is completely effective. One study found last week that two Pfizer shots are 88 percent effective against symptomatic disease from the India variant, while AstraZenenca’s has 60 percent efficacy after two shots.
Professor Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College London epidemiologist who advised the government at the start of the pandemic, said Thursday: “The variant is now in well over the majority of local authority areas in the country and is now the dominant strain. This means the majority of new cases are of the Indian variant and that’s concerning.”
Ferguson added: “We also know it also partially evades immunity generated by vaccines. The data collected in the next two to three weeks will be critical for determining whether Step 4 [the complete June reopening] can go ahead safely. It is very much in the balance right now.”
British government ministers will now play a waiting game to see what happens to the death and hospitalization numbers over the next few weeks, before deciding on June 14 whether to go ahead with its complete relaxation of its pandemic restrictions a week later.
The big decision comes at a delicate time for Johnson, whose handling of the coronavirus pandemic is under fresh scrutiny after his former top adviser gave evidence this week in which he tore into his former boss and said: “Tens of thousands of people died, who didn’t need to die.”