As Delta Cases Surge, U.K. to Ditch Most Covid-19 Restrictions Next Week

LONDON—The U.K. government confirmed plans to drop almost all coronavirus restrictions in England next week, while urging citizens to keep wearing face masks indoors and to continue working from home if they can.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is gambling that vaccines will prevent another large wave of deaths even as cases linked to the Delta variant of coronavirus surge, allowing a shift toward protecting public health with greater personal responsibility and away from legally enforceable containment measures.

Even so, the rapid proliferation of Delta cases has repeatedly damped ambitions for a grand summer reopening. The plan had initially been to ditch almost all restrictions in June—but Delta meant a four-week delay. Mr. Johnson, who previously talked up the government’s steady easing strategy as “a one-way road to freedom,” warned Britons on Monday that he couldn’t rule out reimposing restrictions in the future.

“We want people to remember that this thing, this pandemic, is not over. We must proceed in a cautious way,” Mr. Johnson said at a news conference.

The decision to press ahead with plans to drop most legal restrictions in England comes as Delta triggers a wave of new infections world-wide, prompting some governments to tighten controls to stem the spread. The Netherlands on Friday reimposed restrictions on nightclubs and music festivals in response to a pickup in cases, after relaxing them only weeks earlier.

The U.K. is experiencing a significant Delta surge. The seven-day average of new cases reached 32,600 Monday, 69% higher than the average recorded June 30. Health Secretary

Sajid Javid

on Monday said cases could rise to as many as 100,000 a day in the coming weeks.

Experts say recent mass events such as a European soccer championship and the Wimbledon tennis tournament are likely to propel cases higher. Almost 2,000 positive cases in Scotland were linked to a game last month between England and Scotland, according to data from Scotland’s public-health agency. Nearly 75% of these were in people between 20 and 39 years of age and 90% of cases were male.

The difference with earlier phases of the pandemic is that vaccines have weakened the link between cases and deaths. The U.K. has given at least one shot of vaccine to 87% of adults and two to 66%, with the take-up among elderly groups who are most at risk if infected in excess of 90%.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a four-week extension to the country’s Covid-19 restrictions in mid-June as the country deals with an increase in Delta variant infections. WSJ’s Jason Douglas explains what that could mean for the global effort to contain the virus. Photo: Henry Nicholls/Reuters (Video from 6/14/21)

Hospital admissions are on the rise but at a pace unlikely to put the same significant level of strain on hospitals as occurred in previous phases of the pandemic. Deaths are a fraction of the number witnessed during previous surges.

Modeling by scientists advising the government shows the U.K. can expect another bout of sickness and death with Delta, but it is likely to fall short of the hit experienced in previous waves. In January, for instance, when the vaccination program was in its infancy and another coronavirus variant, known as Alpha, had been spreading rapidly, deaths topped 1,200 a day. Deaths currently are averaging less than 30 a day.

Mr. Javid confirmed in Parliament that the final stage of the government’s four-step program to ease restrictions will go ahead July 19. Legal limits on social gatherings will be scrapped, and nightclubs and other still-shut businesses can reopen.

A legal requirement to wear masks indoors will be ditched—but replaced with government guidance to keep doing so in crowded spaces and on public transport, Mr. Javid said. He added the government wants people to work from home if they can and to return to offices, stores and factories only gradually. People should consider meeting outside wherever possible, he said.

“This is the right time to get our nation closer to normal life,” Mr. Javid said. He added that the virus can’t be eradicated. July 19 is “the start of a new phase of continued caution while we live with this virus and manage the risks,” he said.

Evidence from the U.K. suggests that two doses of vaccine are just as effective in preventing hospitalization against the Delta variant as against Alpha. Public-health officials are this summer racing to expand vaccination to younger people and get second doses to those still awaiting them.

Mr. Javid said the biggest risk to progress against Covid-19 is the emergence of another variant that can evade the immunity conferred by the shots and “puncture the protective wall of our vaccination program.” The U.K. intends to step up its genetic surveillance of the virus in response, he said.

Some legal restrictions will stay in force. People in receipt of a confirmed Covid-19 diagnosis will be required to isolate. Incoming travelers from some destinations will be required to quarantine.

The easing applies to England only. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland set their own public-health policies and are broadly following similar plans to relax restrictions in the coming weeks.

Write to Jason Douglas at [email protected]

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