UK eases Covid-19 curbs as numbers plunge due to lockdown
All restrictions are slated to be lifted by June 21.
After being holed up in homes for months, millions of Britons flocked to shops, pubs and garden restaurants from Monday, when restrictions were eased, marking a significant milestone in a country that has faced one of the worst death tolls due to Covid-19 in Europe.
Aided by one of the fastest vaccination programmes in the world, the UK has seen a sharp fall in the number of new infections, hospital admissions and deaths in recent days and weeks. From a peak daily death toll of nearly 1,000, the figure is now well below 50. The overall death figure is over 150,000.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed the vaccination of over 40 million people, the dwindling new infections and the easing of restrictions on Monday, but cautioned people to continue to follow social distancing and other precautions to prevent another wave.
The current Covid-19 management status was proceeding according to the road-map Johnson announced in March, by which restrictions are to be progressively eased until all are lifted by June 21. Non-essential retail, gymnasiums, and outdoor hospitality were to open from April 12, among other venues. The next date for more easing of the curbs is May 17, when international travel is likely to be allowed.
The easing, however, is dependent on close monitoring of four tests: the vaccine deployment programme continues successfully; evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated; infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations which would put unsustainable pressure on the National Health Service (NHS); and the assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new variants of concern.
From last Friday, the Johnson government has made available free lateral flow tests to allow those without symptoms to regularly test themselves, since evidence shows that about one in three persons with Covid-19 do not have symptoms but can still infect others. The tests are available for collection from pharmacies and other health centres.
According to official data, all adults over 50 years of age, the clinically vulnerable and health and social care workers have now been offered vaccines. As of Tuesday evening, 32,250,481 people had received the first dose and 7,857,396 the second dose.
Johnson said: “We have now passed another hugely significant milestone in our vaccine programme by offering jabs to everyone in the nine highest risk groups. That means more than 32m people have been given the precious protection vaccines provide against Covid-19”.
“We will now move forward with completing essential second doses and making progress towards our target of offering all adults a vaccine by the end of July,” he added.
The UK’s vaccination programme has faced some hurdles but has managed to proceed as per schedule. A consignment of 5m doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine from India did not arrive in March as cases rose exponentially there, but UK officials insisted it would not adversely affect the programme.
On Wednesday, experts announced that a major study launched in February to examine whether Covid-19 vaccines can be safely mixed with different types of jabs for the first and second doses is to be expanded.
Led by the University of Oxford, researchers running the Com-Cov study to investigate alternating doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines for the first and second doses said they would also include a shot of the Moderna or Novavax vaccines.
Matthew Snape of the University of Oxford, who is chief investigator on the trial, said: “The focus of both this and the original Com-Cov study is to explore whether the multiple Covid-19 vaccines that are available can be used more flexibly, with different vaccines being used for the first and second dose.”
He added: “If we can show that these mixed schedules generate an immune response that is as good as the standard schedules, and without a significant increase in the vaccine reactions, this will potentially allow more people to complete their Covid-19 immunisation course more rapidly. This would also create resilience within the system in the event of a shortfall in the availability of any of the vaccines in use.”
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