Freedom day:' Does science support lifting all COVID-19 restrictions?


Posted: Tue, Jul 13, 2021, 8:53

The UK’s July COVID-19 reopening has scientists divided. Medical News Today spoke with various researchers and doctors, and they all agreed on one point: fully reopen or not, keep some restrictions such as mask-wearing in place.

As the U.K. reemerges from many months of caution, COVID-19 lockdowns, and restrictions, everyone has one question on their minds: Is it right to lift all measures at once?

Dubbed England’s “freedom day” or the government’s “Step 4” in plans to return to normal, July 19 is the date the British government seeks to end all legal, social, and economic restrictions imposed to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Previously, the U.K. had given June 21 as its grand reopening day; however, the number of newly confirmed daily COVID cases and below target vaccination rates forced the government to postpone the date by at least 3 weeks.

The U.K. government said that delaying the date would enable more people to receive first and second vaccinations against COVID-19. Its plans included offering a first dose of the vaccine to all over-18s and providing two-thirds of adults with a second dose by July 19.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government have been reluctant to keep restrictions in place any longer, provided the data support it. This includes evaluating the success of the nation’s vaccination program and the impact COVID-19 cases have on the National Health Service (NHS).

Both scientists and Johnson have acknowledged that although vaccines have weakened the linkTrusted Source between COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, it has not severed it, which calls to attention the necessity of other types of measures.

So, could a reopening of this scale effectively erase (almost) all progress recorded so far, or has the U.K. got everything under control? Will the U.K. have, according to Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, a “summer of chaos and confusion.” The scientists have weighed in.
What will change with the lifting of restrictions?

Lifting restrictions includes removing limits on the number of people that can meet socially in any setting, including at home.

Nightclubs and other shuttered businesses can open, and hospitality venues, such as pubs, cafes, and hotels, can operate at full capacity.

The plans include scrapping physical distancing guidelines, and mask-wearing is likely to become optional in England; however, it may remain mandatory in public settings, such as hospitals. Companies will no longer instruct their employees to work from home.

Meanwhile, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will be implementing their own rules and will likely not follow suit with England’s ‘no masks’ plan.

In general, the government will expect people in England to make their own informed decisions after July 19.

Overview of current COVID-19 situation in the UK

The U.K. currently has the world’s 7th highest death toll from COVID-19 at just over 128,500.

Overall, newly confirmed cases now average around 32,000 a day in the U.K. Latest figures indicate that about 2,700 people are currently in hospital, a 50% increase from the previous weeks’ figures.

According to the latest weekly update from Public Health England (PHE), the number of people presenting with the delta variant has reached 54,268 within the last week and increased by 32%, bringing the total to 216,249. The delta variant currently makes up 99% of newly confirmed cases across the U.K.

A study conducted by the Imperial College London has also found that this surge of infections is most prominent in the younger population, specifically, those 5-12 years who are unvaccinated, and those aged 18-24 years who have only recently been eligible for the vaccine. The researchers said the youth were testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 five times higher than older people.

PHE has reiterated that two doses of the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccines remain effective against hospitalization for the delta variant at 96% and 92%, respectively.

According to Our World in Data, the U.K. has administered over 80 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines so far, and 34.2 million people have received both doses. That translates to around 51.3% of the entire population being fully immunized. This figure remains below the 60–70% threshold scientists estimate is needed to achieve herd immunity.
Is England ready?

Scientists are divided.
Yes, some scientists argue

Some scientists believe this is the right time to go ahead with the reopening. They argue that delaying the reopening date will only lead to a bigger surge later on.

“Opening up now is definitely better than in September or October when kids go back to school,” Prof. Tim Spector, an epidemiologist from King’s College London, told Medical News Today.

Right now, at the height of summer, people spend more time outside, in theory, and the schools will soon be out in the U.K., which means the virus won’t have as many crowds or enclosed spaces in which to circulate.

Even though the U.K. has seen its infection rates rise over the last few weeks due to the delta variant, it has not seen a spike in hospitalizations or deaths, unlike the first wave of the pandemic. This indicates that the current COVID-19 vaccines are working to prevent severe cases.

Prof. Spector said he is broadly in agreement with the July 19 date for reopening.

“We need to move into a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have realized that we will not get rid of COVID-19, and we are moving into a clear endemic phase where there will be thousands of cases all the time, and it is never going to go away. We are going to be fighting new variants with vaccines.”

Branding it a “new era,” Spector told MNT the reopening was a way for the government to get rid of methods and mitigating measures that are no longer working, such as contact tracing, “which is no longer useful or relevant.”

He said the vaccines were working and driving the pandemic toward being a case of mild flu.

In parallel, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests that around 9 in 10 adults in most parts of the U.K. are now likely to have COVID-19 antibodies.

Other countries, such as Germany, lifting travel bans on the U.K. has also strengthened the sentiment.
But scientists point out some caveats

However, Spector pointed out that he does not agree with everything about the government’s plan.

“I think I would’ve kept a few rules on in high-risk areas. […] It wouldn’t be wise to encourage people to go on a crowded tube train without a mask, for example.”

In places where recurrent infections take hold of the community and turn into “hubs of infection,” Spector believes, deeper investigation is needed to get the number of cases down and reduce the long-term morbidity of the country.

He says in the U.K., one of these places has been the West Midlands.

He adds, “You could ask scientists in Manchester why every time there is an outbreak, it is always the same place and look into that.”

He stressed that local public health authorities need to be given more decision-making power to get to the bottom of such cases.

“They should be able to do what it takes to stop the harm. I would like to see more local power that doesn’t hurt the people doing fine and is fair.”

He was referring to nationwide or region-wide lockdowns where restrictions on a more local scale would suffice.

Spector acknowledges that there will be some adverse outcomes from this reopening. One, he says, is the inevitable rise in infections, which will occur naturally due to relaxing measures.

The U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid has estimated that the number of daily cases could reach 100,000 per day over summer 2021.

“It will be a trade-off,” Spector told MNT.

As for older people and the clinically vulnerable, such as people with immunosuppressed conditions, Spector says they will have to face this problem as they do “every winter with the flu.”


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