After a Long Lockdown and Vaccination Campaign, Is England on the Road to Normality?
LONDON – For the past week, this has been the country’s most anticipated issue, posted every day at 4 p.m. by the UK government. When it rose to 4,223 on Wednesday, reversing seven straight days of decline, it was a reminder that the country’s exit from the pandemic still has some twists and turns.
The UK’s number of new coronavirus cases, which stood at 27,743 on Wednesday, is still only half of the recent high of 54,674 on July 17. It came two days before Prime Minister Boris Johnson lifted most social distancing restrictions in England in defiance of those who said it would fuel a massive wave of infections.
The reduction in cases has baffled scientists and drew warnings from Mr Johnson and other officials who say it is too early to declare victory – a warning which may be justified by the latest hike. Yet inevitably, after 16 months of containment and a solid vaccination campaign, the general downward trend has fueled hopes that the country could finally be on the path to normalcy.
Adding to those hopes, England announced that fully vaccinated travelers from the United States and the European Union would be allowed entry without going into quarantine. The gesture, effective Monday, has yet to be made by the United States or some European countries, but it nonetheless alleviates the isolation many Britons felt as other parts of the world began to reopen.
“It’s ironic that with one of the best immunization programs in the world, we are so completely isolated,” said Steven Freudmann, president of the Institute of Travel and Tourism, an industry group that has pushed for the changes. . “But now there seems to be a significant light at the end of the tunnel.”
It is less clear that the end of England’s wider campaign against the virus is in sight. As the number of new cases edged up slightly on Wednesday, the number of deaths declined, as did the number of people hospitalized – a metric that many experts say is the most significant because it shows whether vaccines are effective in breaking up. the link between infection and severity. disease.
Still, with the highly transmissible Delta variant circulating in the population, the focus on cases is understandable. When Mr Johnson lifted all but a few restrictions on July 19 – a landmark event that UK tabloids have proclaimed as ‘Freedom Day’ – his own health secretary, Sajid Javid, warned cases could reach 100,000 per day.
Such predictions gave the government’s decision a decidedly hollow feeling; many feared that this would simply precipitate a dangerous third wave of infections. The sense of dissonance was heightened by the fact that Mr Johnson himself was forced to self-isolate after coming into contact with Mr Javid, who had tested positive for the virus, even after being fully vaccinated.
Now, having braced for a resurgence, England is struggling to make sense of a quagmire of conflicting data.
Scientists dare various theories for the lower level of cases: summer school vacations, which cut a chain of transmission; the end of the European football championships, which filled stadiums and pubs; the hot weather, which drew people outside; and a drop in the number of people tested – either because they are students, are no longer tested at school, or because they avoid the tests to avoid their vacation plans being disrupted by a positive result.
After hovering around a million tests a day last week, the last week of many schools in England, the number of people tested has fallen to around 800,000 a day.
Some suggest that after living with the virus for a year and a half, people are simply more careful.
“They haven’t changed their behavior as much, even though the legal restrictions have changed,” said Devi Sridhar, head of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh. “Eighteen months of the pandemic have shown people how to stay safe. “
Professor Sridhar said she expected to see a spike in cases, especially among young people, in September after schools reopened. The UK government has so far decided not to vaccinate children between the ages of 12 and 18, arguing that their resilience to the effects of Covid-19 reduces the benefits of their inoculation.
Other scientists also say there could be a resurgence of cases. But given that 71% of adults are fully vaccinated, some are predicting Britain may soon reach the threshold for herd immunity.
“I think I am certain that by the end of September, in October, we will come back to most of the pandemic,” said Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, known for his grim scenarios.
The easing of travel restrictions was a big step towards normalcy. Britain had been criticized for distinguishing between travelers who were vaccinated in Britain and those who were vaccinated elsewhere, without any medical justification.
Vaccinated people arriving in England from most of the countries on the government’s “orange list”, those with moderately high transmission, have been required to self-quarantine – unless they have received their own. vaccines in Great Britain.
Under the new rules, travelers from the United States, the European Union, Iceland, Norway or Switzerland who have been fully vaccinated with vaccines authorized by the United States or European drug regulators will no longer have to self-quarantine, although they are still required to take a test after you arrive.
The new policy applies only to England, not to all of Britain. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland make their own decisions regarding foreign travelers.
“We are helping to reunite people living in the United States and European countries with their family and friends in the United Kingdom,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps wrote on Twitter.
But the European Union and UK residents are still mostly banned from traveling to the US, unless they are US citizens. On Monday, the Biden administration said it would continue to restrict the entry of Europeans and Britons into the United States, saying they could broadcast the Delta variant further.
For UK officials, the biggest challenge over the next few days may be to dispel the notion that the pandemic is over.
Speaking in a radio interview on Wednesday, Mr Johnson said: ‘The most important thing is that people recognize that the current situation still calls for a lot of caution and that people just remember that the virus is still there a lot of people have it.
Mr Johnson was battling the euphoria of the genre splashed on the front page of the Daily Mail on Wednesday. He quoted an anonymous senior government minister as saying, “Covid is everywhere except screaming.”
Elian Peltier contributed reporting
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