Boris Johnson’s decision to ease remaining coronavirus restrictions in England is prompting growing fear and calls for caution, fueling worries that a surge in infections will strain hospitals and undermine Britain’s economic recovery.
Doctors are warning that the fresh toll of the pandemic will overburden an already beleaguered National Health Service that’s struggling to clear a large backlog of other operations, while economists expect a dip in consumer confidence in the coming weeks due to the greater perceived threat to public safety.
With social distancing and the mandatory wearing of masks due to end on July 19, Johnson is pushing ahead with dropping virus measures even as a new wave of the pandemic takes hold. Daily hospital admissions are expected to hit 1,000-2,000 per day at a peak in August and there are expected to be as many as 200 daily deaths, according to modeling by the U.K.’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).
Announcing the decision on Monday, Johnson urged caution, appealing to the public to wear masks in crowded indoor spaces and on buses and trains. He said that while the general instruction to work from home would end, “we don’t expect that the whole country will return to their desks as one from Monday.” He added that businesses should plan for a “gradual return to work over the summer.”
The question is whether Johnson’s move is too much of a gamble: Though the nation’s vaccination roll out has significantly weakened the connection between rising virus cases and hospitalizations and deaths, a resurgent pandemic would mean greater pressure on the NHS and added uncertainty for businesses.
Doctors’ Association U.K., a non-profit organization, said an increase in coronavirus cases would be a “disaster” for hospitals because the NHS is already facing an unprecedented workload, with many staff self-isolating. A surge in cases will mean more disruptions to services and delays to routine treatments, DAUK said.
“The unfolding disaster which awaits us in autumn and winter is the biggest public health experiment ever seen,” said Elizabeth Toberty, a general practitioner and spokesperson for DAUK. “The government’s strategy for opening up is completely lacking in logic and stands to put both patients and public services at risk.”
A survey of 2,500 doctors by the British Medical Association found that 90% wanted masks to continue to be mandatory on public transport, and 78% wanted them to continue to be worn in shops.
Not making masks mandatory will “see a sustained and even steeper rise in infection rates across the summer,” said Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair. Johnson’s easing of restrictions will “mean more patients on waiting lists will suffer and wait longer for treatment,” he said.
A growth in coronavirus cases is also likely to carry an economic cost. While households have begun to spend savings accumulated during lockdowns, consumer confidence is due to take a hit in the near-term as infections rise, said Suren Thiru, head of economics at the British Chambers of Commerce.
“That can be quite a drag on the recovery,” Thiru said. “There’s no doubt headwinds to the economy have increased.”
Defending the decision on Monday, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said an “exit wave” of infections was inevitable, but delaying lifting the restrictions would not make much difference to case levels. Johnson said July 19 was “as good a time as any” to ease the rules.
News of restrictions ending was welcomed by England’s hospitality sector, which has had to operate at reduced capacity and with some venues closed due to virus measures. As part of the easing, nightclubs and other venues hosting large crowds should ask customers to show the NHS “Covid pass” as proof of vaccination, a recent negative test or natural immunity, as a “matter of social responsibility,” Johnson said.
However, activity is likely to remain subdued due to fragile confidence among customers, said Kate Nicholls, chief executive officer of U.K. Hospitality, a lobby group.
“It’s clear we’re not out of the woods yet,” she said. “We don’t really know how quickly demand will bounce back.”
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