July 13, 2021 | By Bronwen Largier
From Monday next week, England will lift most remaining COVID-19 restrictions including the 2m social distancing requirement currently in place and capacity limits for venues and business and public events.
The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the announcement overnight that the lifting of restrictions would proceed as planned, even as the country continues to record escalating new cases of COVID-19. Over 34,000 daily new cases were reported in the latest government update and, although deaths remain comparatively low, particularly given the numbers of cases, hospitalisations and deaths have both gone up 56 percent in the last week compared to the week prior. In the last seven days, 200 people have died and 3,081 people have been admitted to hospital.
In making the announcement, Johnson said “it is absolutely vital that we proceed now with caution” although the relaxation of restrictions is anything but.
“We cannot simply revert instantly from Monday the 19th of July to life as it was before COVID.”
He said the government expects and recommends people would still wear masks in crowded places like public transport although there will be no requirement to do so from Monday.
At the same time, on the same page that the relaxing of restrictions is outlined on the UK Government’s website, there is also a warning that the nation remains in a third wave of infection.
The rescinding of COVID-19 infection prevention measures in England comes as the UK reaches increasingly high levels of vaccination – 66.2 percent of adults in the UK are now fully vaccinated and 87.2 percent have had at least one dose.
However, modelling released by SAGE, which advises government, shows that hospitalisations could go up to 1,000 a day after restrictions are removed – or more, if there is a snap back to pre-COVID attitudes and actions rather than a gradual return to normal.
In an open letter to the government published last week in medical journal The Lancet, a number of medical professionals, including members of SAGE, warn that a greater level of vaccination is required particularly in people under the age of 18 who are not currently eligible for a jab before restrictions are lifted. The letter also suggests that there is not currently capacity to update the vaccine to protect against further emerging variants, leaving the UK and the world open to a variant that is vaccine resistant.
So what can Australian learn from this?
The Doherty Institute in Melbourne is yet to release its vaccine threshold modelling that the Australian Government will use to trigger the four phases of the plan that will put an end to future lockdowns, lift restrictions and state border closures and reopen Australia to the world. We also don’t currently have a plan to vaccinate people under the age of 16-18. And we can’t yet manufacture mRNA vaccines onshore in Australia.
But, as the UK removes a huge part of its infection mitigation measures in one fell swoop, we can see what happens in cold hard reality and adjust our approach so we learn from those who are going before us, possibly at their own peril.