In recent weeks, much of the developed world has been watching the United Kingdom for signs of what's to come next in the pandemic. The highly-vaccinated country is battling a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases among the young and unvaccinated driven almost entirely by the highly-transmissible Delta variant, threatening to derail the government's reopening roadmap and plunge the U.K. into perpetual lockdown. But so far, the data is encouraging. Hospitalizations and deaths, while rising slightly, remain low, and the government is taking this as a sign that it's time to come out of hiding and learn to "cope with" COVID.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday is expected to announce that England will forge ahead with the easing of most remaining COVID restrictions on July 19. Social distancing, masking, and capacity limits at businesses and restaurants are all set to be scrapped, BBC reports, as Johnson seeks to "restore people's freedoms" and shift the nation's pandemic management strategy to focus more on individual responsibility.
"We need to be clear that cases are going to rise significantly," said Health Secretary Sajid Javid. "I know many people will be cautious about the easing of restrictions – that's completely understandable. But no date we choose will ever come without risk, so we have to take a broad and balanced view."
The government's scientific advisers aren't convinced. They say easing restrictions during a surge — the U.K. is currently seeing more daily coronavirus cases than the entire European Union combined — could fuel the evolution of new variants.
"The world is watching the U.K. to see what living with COVID and high vaccine uptake looks like," Devi Sridhar, head of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh, told The New York Times. "The next few weeks will reveal if they've gambled correctly, or we end up having another wave of high hospitalizations."