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U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it’s too early to say whether a planned easing of coronavirus restrictions on June 21 can go ahead, as ministers continue to weigh the threat of a potential fresh wave of the pandemic.
“We’ll be looking at all of the data over the next week,” Hancock said on Sky News on Sunday. “We are not saying ‘no’ to the 21st of June at this point.”
A final easing of social restrictions in Britain has been thrown into doubt by the rise of the highly transmissible Delta variant first identified in India, which is now the dominant strain in the U.K. There were 5,341 new cases of coronavirus reported on Sunday, a 65% increase compared to the same day a week ago.
Read more: U.K.’s Johnson Faces Lockdown Dilemma as Covid Cases Rise (1)
Removing the last batch of restrictions on June 21 would allow nightclubs to reopen, sports stadiums to fill to capacity, people to queue for drinks in bars, and large weddings and conferences to resume. Delaying the final easing risks a showdown between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative backbenchers, many of whom see the date as a promise to voters.
In other developments:
- The Delta variant is about 40% more transmissible than the previous dominant virus strain in Britain, Hancock said on the BBC’s “Andrew Marr” program
- Ministers are open to the possibility of keeping some virus measures, such as mask-wearing and advising people to work from home, while easing other restrictions, Hancock said
- The opposition Labour Party’s Lisa Nandy said the June 21 easing is “looking very difficult at the moment,” and that more support needs to be given to places such as Blackburn, Bolton and Bury, where the Delta-variant numbers have been climbing
- Dating apps such as Tinder and Bumble will encourage people in the U.K. to get vaccinated, according to a statement from the Department for Health & Social Care
Johnson’s key decision about easing restrictions comes as he faces the prospect of a backbench rebellion this week over a cut to overseas aid, and as he prepares to host world leaders at the G-7 Summit in Cornwall from Friday. Britain’s premier is expected to use the summit to push for a coordinated effort to prevent future pandemics and fight climate change.
He will also say that beating the virus globally will be necessary to get buy-in from developing nations to join the battle against climate change, the Times newspaper reported, citing an unidentified source. 10 Downing Street did not respond to a request for comment.
On the June 21 decision, Hancock said there are encouraging signs because, although cases of the Delta variant have been rising, hospitalizations remain broadly flat. That shows that the country’s successful vaccination program is protecting citizens against severe disease, Hancock said.
“We all need to go and get vaccinated,” he said. “The majority of people going into hospital with Covid are unvaccinated.”
(Updates with extra details from third paragraph.)