WITH June 21 “Freedom Day” less than two weeks away, ministers have a huge decision on their hands.
Should they allow all social distancing measures to be relaxed as planned, or delay the full lockdown lifting?
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Ministers will decide in the next week whether to lift all social distancing on June 21. Pictured: A social distancing sign in Regent Street, London, June 7[/caption]
The UK Government will announce on Monday whether England will proceed with a further easing of restrictions.
It comes amid concerns about the Delta (India) variant, thought to be 40 per cent more transmissible than the Alpha (Kent) variant which caused the winter wave.
But although concerning, positive data shows just three fully jabbed people have been admitted to hospital with the Delta strain, under 30s are being invited for jabs and deaths are at a record low.
Reports have suggested the final step in the roadmap could be delayed by two weeks or a month.
Ministers were given a “downbeat” briefing on the latest data on Monday by chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, according to the Times.
But a UK Government spokeswoman said yesterday “no decision” had been made yet.
“As the Prime Minister has set out, we can see nothing in the data at the moment to suggest that we need to deviate from the roadmap,” said the spokeswoman.
“We continue to look at the data and the latest scientific evidence and no decision on Step 4 has yet been made.”
But what does the UK need to achieve in order for lockdown to be lifted?
Downing Street has four key tests it says will be examined at each stage of the roadmap to make sure it is safe to go ahead with the next step.
The “Four Tests” ministers will consider this week are:
1. Vaccine reach
The first test is “vaccine deployment programme continues successfully”.
The UK’s jab programme is undoubtedly successful, already giving 77 per cent of the adult population one dose.
The NHS is racing to get through under 30s as quickly as possible, given a Covid epidemic has begun in the young.
But it is second doses that offer the maximum protection, especially against the Delta variant from India.
One dose of a vaccine is only 33 per cent effective, but two is between 66 and 88 per cent effective.
More than half the population have had two jabs, but the NHS is racing to get more out.
The Government shortened the gap between doses from 12 weeks to eight in order to speed up the process.
2. Hospital numbers
The second test is “evidence vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated”.
There is a wealth of data to show that jabs are, indeed, bringing down the number of people suffering severe disease, including deaths.
If hospital numbers stay low, even with rising cases, it means vaccines have “severed the link” between the two trends.
NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson told Times Radio today that vaccines appear to have “broken” the link between infections, hospital admission and deaths.
Mr Hopson reassured the number of people in hospital with the Delta variant was not increasing “very significantly”.
The Delta variant weakens jab efficacy, so it’s important this does not lead to more people in hospital.
The Health Secretary told MPs officials are working on developing the “absolutely critical” figure showing the efficacy of jabs at reducing serious diseases and hospital admissions for the Delta variant.
He has previously said the vaccine was breaking a “rock solid” link between infections and hospital admissions.
3. Rising infections
The third test is that “infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS”.
Infection rates are clearly rising across the UK. The daily average (4,000) of new cases is double what it was at the start of May.
Of the 12,431 Indian variant cases so far confirmed in the UK, 10,797 are in England, 1,511 in Scotland, 97 in Wales and 26 in Northern Ireland.
Thanks to vaccines, it is unlikely the NHS will come under pressure again even if cases are rising.
Younger unvaccinated people are less likely to get so sick they need hospital care, while very few people who have been jabbed are getting Covid.
But there is still a possibility of NHS strain.
SAGE modelling shows that if there is a new variant that is 30-40 per cent more transissible (such as Delta), it could “generate more total hospital admissions than the first wave”.
But modelling can be wrong.
Data is showing that so far, hospitals are reporting less sick, younger patients than in previous waves, according to Mr Hopson.
It suggests patients do not stay as long in beds, with a more manageable workload on the NHS.
Mr Hopson said: “They are less clinically vulnerable, they are less in need of critical care and therefore they’re [hospitals] seeing what they believe is significantly lower mortality rate which is, you know, borne out by the figures.”
4. Threat of new variants
The roadmap says stages of lockdown lifting will only go ahead if “our assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new Variants of Concern”.
There is a new Variant of Concern, from India, and it is driving infection rates and threatening vaccine efficacy.
But officials have given indication so far the threat is not significant enough to stop easing restrictions.
Bolton is an example of how outbreaks could be managed with a set of measures – like surge testing and a vaccination uptake campaign.
The town’s record high infection rate has been coming down, and it’s hoped the same approach will work on Greater Manchester and Lancashire.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said today the “best way forward” is replicating the targeted action in Bolton, rather than local lockdowns seen last summer.
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He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We have seen in Bolton that that approach has worked. It did require a lot of effort and Bolton Council has been brilliant, the NHS there, local people above all have been extremely helpful and effective in combating it.
“So that approach, of going door to door with testing, doing the surge testing, doing the vaccine buses, getting everybody out to be vaccinated, has worked there.
“If we can replicate that in other places where you see similarly concerning rises in the number of cases, then that is the best way forward.”