England will lift all remaining COVID-19 lockdown measures next week as nearly 70 percent of the U.K.’s adult population have been fully vaccinated, Britain’s health secretary said Monday.
Sajid Javid said Britain’s successful vaccine administration plan means that nine out of 10 adults have antibodies against the virus, with 87 percent having received at least their first dose, and 66 percent being fully vaccinated.
Javid said despite the rising number of cases, summer is the right time to lift restrictions and allow Britons to return to normal life before a potential resurgence in late summer or winter.
“There will never be a perfect time to take this step, because we simply cannot eradicate this virus—whether we like it or not, coronavirus is not going away,” he said.
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The government is on track to meet its target of offering all adults a first vaccine dose by July 19, the day when all remaining lockdown restrictions, including mandatory mask-wearing, are set to be lifted.
Javid said while new infections could reach 100,000 a day later in the summer, driven by the more transmissible Delta variant, two doses of the vaccine offer effective protection against serious illness from the virus and officials believe the surge in cases will not put “unsustainable pressure” on hospitals. Waiting any longer to lift restrictions will risk having the virus spread in the winter, when hospitals are most likely to be overwhelmed, he added.
The U.K. as a whole has seen infections soar in recent weeks as a result of the Delta variant, first found in India. Daily infection levels are running at over 30,000, their highest rates since January. Most infections have largely occurred among younger people, many of whom have yet to receive a first dose of vaccine.
The British government hopes the vaccine rollout has severely disrupted the link between infections and those needing hospitalization. However, both the number of people requiring hospitalization and dying from COVID-19 have been edging up in recent days, though not at the same rate as infections.
Still, concerns over the rapid increase in cases has piled pressure on the government to take a more cautious approach over lifting restrictions. Authorities are expected to recommend that people continue to wear face masks in enclosed places, such as on public transport and in shops.
Public health officials and scientists have been voicing their concerns, saying ditching masks and social distancing altogether could be dangerous.
Professor Peter Openshaw, a member of a group that advises the government on new and emerging respiratory viruses, said it was vital to keep some protective measures in place, such as wearing masks.
“I really don’t see why people are reluctant to wear face coverings, it is quite clear that they do greatly reduce transmission,” he told BBC radio. “Vaccines are fantastic but you have to give them time to work. And in the meantime, keeping up all those measures which we have learned to reduce the transmission is to me really vital.”
The British government, which enforced one of the longest lockdowns in the world, has lifted restrictions for England in a series of steps that began with reopening schools in March. The fourth and final stage was delayed last month to provide time for more people to be vaccinated amid the rapid spread of the delta variant.
Other parts of the U.K.—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—are following their own, broadly similar, road maps out of lockdown.