British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Friday that current plans for easing COVID-19 restrictions in England will proceed, but a rise in cases of a new so-called Indian variant of the virus could change those plans — as well as plans to fully reopen the nation by the end of June.
At a news conference from his offices on Downing Street, Johnson said there have been clusters of the B1617.2 COVID-19 variant, first observed in India, identified in the northwestern English towns of Bolton, Blackburn and Darwen, as well as other parts of the country. He said it is believed the variant is more easily transmissible than other strains of the virus, but it is unclear by how much.
Johnson said if the variant proves to be only slightly more transmissible than previous variants, then the “roadmap” for easing restrictions can proceed as planned, with step three of the plan to begin next week, with most outdoor social contact limits lifted and indoor hospitality and entertainment venues — restaurants and bars — reopening.
But he cautioned that if the variant proves to be significantly more transmissible, the country is “likely to face some hard choices.” He said the new variant could pose a “serious disruption to our progress and could make it more difficult to move to step four in June” — the total lifting of all social limits. Johnsons said the government will “do whatever it takes to keep the public safe."
The prime minister said the good news is that there is no evidence to suggest existing vaccines are any less effective against the new variant, and that he plans to accelerate remaining second doses to people over age 50 and those clinically vulnerable to just eight weeks after the first dose and would prioritize first doses for those eligible who had not yet come forward to be vaccinated.
Britain’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported Friday that infection levels overall across the nation are still low, and, in fact, fell for a fifth consecutive week.