England pushes ahead with plan to ease COVID restrictions despite rising Delta variant, and Europe looks on with worry

July 6, 2021, 8:05 AM UTC

Despite spiking coronavirus cases and the rising threat of the Delta variant, England will greatly ease COVID-19 restrictions and mask mandates, increasing worries about another wave of infections both in Britain and in the European vacation destinations that have been eagerly pushing to save their summer season.

Sunday saw 24,248 new coronavirus cases reported in the U.K.—90% of which can be attributed to the Delta strain, according to Public Health England. COVID cases in Scotland have climbed vertically to exceed their January peak, and the country now tops Europe’s hotspot chart.

The number of new cases can be traced back to the Delta variant, which first originated in India and has found a comfortable breeding ground in the U.K.

Jason Leitch, the Scottish government’s national clinical director of health care quality and strategy, also told the BBC that fans who gathered to watch the three Euro soccer championship matches played in Scotland had been a contributing factor in the jump in infections.

Still, in the face of rising cases, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is moving full steam ahead on relaxing restrictions, lifting social distancing rules, and making mask use voluntary in England.

In the Monday afternoon announcement on the relaxation in restrictions, to go into effect July 19, Johnson said, “We always did say there would be a third wave.” He added, “We must sadly reconcile ourselves to more deaths.”

Despite the U.K. having one of the most successful vaccination campaigns with 64% of the U.K. adult population jabbed with both doses and a whopping 86% jabbed with one, the new strain can spread quicker than its predecessors, leaving partially vaccinated (and carefree) youths significantly less protected.

Our World In Data Coronavirus Data Explorer
Our World In Data Coronavirus Data Explorer

The news is worrying for England and its EU neighbors, which are anxious to let in U.K. tourists but fear a similar rise in numbers.

When one door opens…

Despite rising cases, many hospitality groups are relishing the easing after having rallied against the Johnson government’s decision to delay the dropping of restrictions, originally slated for June 21.

“After nearly 18 months of forced closure or operating under severe restrictions—which crippled the viability of pubs—July 19th should mark the beginning of the recovery for our sector in England,” said Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association.

Pub- and club owners may be delighted with the news, but there’s no denying the Delta variant is overwhelmingly striking younger Britons. Berenberg Bank economists recently detailed the age-breakdown in a report they published on Friday.

Seeing charts like this, public health experts are quick to challenge the decision to ease mask mandates.

Dr. Peter English, a retired consultant in communicable disease control at Public Health England, noted that despite the increasing cases of COVID-19, lifting restrictions is “appropriate.” That being said, he assessed that ministers who are not showing consideration for vulnerable people by wearing a mask are “hugely irresponsible” and displaying a “gross failure of leadership.”

The chairman of the British Medical Association, Dr. Chaand Nagpaul, told the BBC it “makes no sense” to stop wearing face coverings in enclosed public spaces amid a rising number of cases of the Delta variant.

The U.K.’s public transport and shopworker union—the Unite union—called the act “gross negligence”, saying their staff would face even more risk of infection if face mask rules were lifted, citing high levels of COVID-19 deaths among bus drivers.

Ryanair and EasyJet have both announced face masks would remain mandatory on their flights “in order to protect the health of our passengers and crew.”

…Another stays shut

However, while many of the remaining rules are swept away, the Prime Minister did not address self-isolation or travel restrictions, which has been a point of contention with the U.K.’s European neighbors.

British travelers are a huge source of revenue for neighboring states, with 44.6 million Brits traveling to the EU alone in 2019, according to the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics (ONS).

In the face of rising COVID-19 numbers, Portugal, Germany, Italy, and Spain have all announced enhanced restrictions on U.K. travelers.

Spain—the top visited country by U.K. residents, which welcomed 18.1 million Brits in 2019—published new rules demanding people entering from the U.K. provide a negative COVID test or proof of vaccination, reversing a rule which let U.K. visitors in unrestricted just a week before.

Spain’s seven-day infection rate per 100,000 people has more than tripled over the past two weeks to 143.1, as a spike in youth infections has been driven by large gatherings such as massive end-of-school parties in Mallorca that left more than 1,200 people infected.

Portugal was previously on the U.K.’s green list, allowing Brits to travel without quarantine. The country subsequently saw a jump in cases and switched course to make sure unvaccinated U.K. travelers to Portugal quarantine for two weeks.

In the face of rising case numbers, Portugal has also announced an 11 p.m. curfew in 45 municipalities, including Lisbon and Porto.

Germany has taken a tougher stance on U.K. travelers, wanting to classify the U.K. as a “country of concern” owing to high rates of the Delta variant. It has also placed tough new quarantine restrictions on travelers from Portugal and Russia, adding them to a list on which only the U.K. had appeared.

Italy, meanwhile, now mandates that all travelers entering the country from the U.K. go into quarantine upon arrival.

In cities like Edinburgh and Manchester, COVID-19 cases in the U.K. have surpassed 400 out of the seven-day case load per 100,000 inhabitants, putting them well into the EU’s “red” zone.

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