Millions of people are now living in “enhanced support” pandemic areas after the UK last night abandoned hopes of ending lockdown amid about growing pressure on services.
The British government stated officially that it still hopes to end lockdown after four weeks. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he had delayed the ending of lockdown to ensure there was not excessive pressure on practices and hospitals.
The latest action came as it was confirmed that the Delta (Indian) variant of the virus is now predominant across the UK – with vaccines slightly less effective than against earlier variants.
Programmes, which include extra vaccination and “surge testing”, from today are being applied in Birmingham, Merseyside, Blackpool and Cheshire – and are already in place for Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Hounslow, London. The measures came amid continuing uncertainty about the impact of the Delta strain. Although lockdown will stay in place, restrictions on weddings, care home visits and some other activities are to be eased.
The UK’s daily infections stayed below 8,000 yesterday after passing that number on Friday. Three deaths from COVID-19 were reported yesterday and 20 over the weekend. The English NHS reported having 993 patients hospitalised with the virus yesterday – the largest number since 5 May. It represented a 15% increase in one week. The Health Service Journal, meanwhile, reported a significant drop off in vaccination rates in the north west – the epicentre of the spread of the Delta variant. In mid-May it was delivering 13% of doses – but this has fallen to 10.5% this month, according to HSJ analysis.
UK Health Security Agency chief executive Dr Jenny Harries said: “The Delta variant is now the dominant strain across the UK, with cases continuing to rise in some areas. People in these areas can help protect their community by remaining cautious, by working from home if possible and remembering to practise hands, face, space and fresh air.”
Speaking to MPs yesterday, health secretary Matt Hancock said: “The Delta variant now accounts for over 90% of cases across the country.We know the Delta variant spreads more easily, and there’s evidence that the risk of hospitalisation is higher than for the previously dominant Alpha variant. Case numbers are rising, up 64% on last week in England, but the whole purpose of vaccination is to break the link between cases, and hospitalisations and deaths. That link is clearly weaker than it once was. However, over the last week we’ve seen hospitalisations start to rise, up 50%.”
He added: “While the protection comes more from the second dose, and so takes longer to reach, the protection we will get after the second jab is highly effective, and, if anything, slightly better against the Delta variant. So, for the purpose of the restrictions, while it will take us a little longer to build the full protection we need through the vaccine, all the science is telling us that we will get there.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last night it was “sensible to wait just a little longer “and give the NHS a few more crucial weeks to get those remaining jabs into the arms of those who need them”. He said: “Now is the time to ease off the accelerator. Because by being cautious now we have the chance in the next four weeks to save many thousands of lives by vaccinating millions more people.”
But chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said: “No one thinks at the end of the four-week delay the risk has gone — there will still be substantial numbers in hospital.”
British Medical Association chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: “We are without doubt, in a phase where cases of the virus are spiralling, but the data we have still doesn’t yet show the full impact of this or of the easing of restrictions on 17 May. Furthermore, the more people who have the virus, the more likely it is that new variants of concern will emerge and numbers of those with longer term ill health following infection will increase. So, it is important to do whatever we can to avoid high levels of virus circulating in the community. The Government has committed to reviewing the data on a daily basis, and it must now use these next four weeks to forensically analyse the data as it emerges. This needs to include the extent to which new cases translate to severe illness and how many people then need treatment in a hospital. The impact on hospitalisations will take at least two more weeks to become apparent and any increase in the death rate won’t really be seen for at least another two weeks after that.”