Boris Johnson announced on Monday (14th June) that the easing of Covid-19 restrictions will be pushed back from the 21st June, with a new target date of the 19th July. With many areas of the hospitality sector on their knees, many will be asking if, and why, it was necessary to delay this step forward.
Was it necessary to delay the easing of restrictions?
The delta variant is highly transmissible
The delta variant, which was first discovered in India, was first detected in the UK in December 2020. Now, just six months down the line, this variant of concern accounts for 90% of UK cases. At the time of writing, we have seen cases double every nine days or so, and there are currently more than 42,000 cases of the delta variant in the UK.
Research suggests that the delta variant is 60% more transmissible than the alpha (Kent) variant, which was already much more transmissible than the original virus.
At the moment, it’s thought that the delta variant doubles the risk of hospitalisation compared to the alpha variant. However, evidence has shown that a double dose of the vaccine provides strong protection against the variant, which means hospital cases have remained fairly low.
It is important to highlight that the vaccines only provide strong protection after two doses, meaning that those who have only had one dose of the vaccine are still vulnerable to infection. To put this into perspective, around 30 million people are now fully vaccinated in the UK (45% of the population), while 42 million people have had just one dose.
While the vaccine programme has meant that fewer infected people are hospitalised than before, the link between cases and hospitalisations is still there. However, over recent days this has begun to stabilise and cases are now about 4% of what daily cases were 10 days earlier.
As a result of this, the government has delayed the easing of restrictions and accelerated the vaccine programme, with everyone over the age of 21 now eligible to get a jab. The government hopes that getting as many people vaccinated as possible before the easing of Covid rules will provide a higher tolerance to infections and reduce the risk of hospitalisation and overwhelming the NHS.
What did the REACT study find?
The Real-time Assessment of Community Transmission (REACT) programme is a series of studies that are using home testing to improve our understanding of how the Covid-19 pandemic is progressing across England.
The latest data taken from the study, from a period between 20th May and 7th June, suggests that the epidemic is growing in England, although the growth may be beginning to slow.
Over the past year, the researchers have tested a sample of the population for Covid-19. They found that of the 108,911 people tested, 135 were positive. This is a rise from 0.1% to 0.15%. Furthermore, most cases were among five- to 12-year-olds and 18- to 24-year-olds.
As a result of this data, the researchers say that young, unvaccinated people have played a key part in the rise in cases, and it is vital they get vaccinated as soon as possible.
Where is the delta variant now?
The delta variant has now been detected in 74 countries including the UK, China, the US, Scandinavia and Pacific rim countries. Due to its high transmissibility, experts fear the delta variant could become the dominant strain worldwide.
In the UK, Birmingham, Blackpool, Cheshire East, Cheshire West and Chester, Liverpool City Region and Warrington are currently suffering with some of the worst rates of infection in the UK. Additional support including surge testing, tracing, isolation support and maximising vaccine uptake has been deployed by the government in these areas.
There is some good news, though. Bolton, which initially saw the highest number of cases in the UK, is now faring much better. Cases are down by 30%, which is thought to be due to the focus on bringing cases down in the area.
Bolton was flooded with Covid tests, with a particular focus on young people after evidence showed the virus was spreading much quicker among that particular age group. Schools were either closed or ordered to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing, and the vaccine programme was accelerated to allow the younger generation to receive their vaccines early.
Now, data shows that both cases and hospitalisations are peaking at a much lower level, with most of those in hospital yet to receive both doses of the vaccine.
Why was easing of restrictions pushed back?
More time to vaccinate
Pushing back the easing of restriction gives the government more time to get the adult population vaccinated. This is of particular concern for the younger generation, as many have still not received their first dose of the jab, leaving them unprotected from the virus.
A four-week delay should allow the government time to offer everyone above the age of 18 their first dose of the vaccine. It also allows more time to give booster (or third) jabs to the older and more vulnerable population.
Limiting the impact
As previously mentioned, infection rates are rising rapidly and opening up further would allow the virus to spread even quicker as big events (such as festivals and weddings) would be allowed to go ahead with no social distancing rules in place.
Primarily, the government’s priority is to reduce the impact on the NHS, where staff are already physically and mentally exhausted, and suffering from burnout. For the meantime, hospitalisations remain stable and patients in hospital seem to be less sick and are getting discharged quicker. However, this could change at any given moment.
According to the BBC, government modellers say the delay could reduce the number of cases which end up in hospital by between a third and a half to around 1,000 a day in the summer. For these reasons, if we are to prevent another wave, it seems like a wise decision to pause the easing of restrictions for the time being and reassess in a few weeks’ time.