Boris Johnson banks on British caution as restrictions lift

The UK prime minister presses ahead with lifting the next round of COVID restrictions from Monday.

Boris Johnson banks on British caution as restrictions lift

LONDON — Boris Johnson is banking on British caution as he pushes ahead with England’s biggest step toward freedom from COVID-19 restrictions yet, despite fears the fast-transmitting Indian variant of the disease is taking hold.

Six people or two households will be allowed to meet indoors from Monday, and those eating and drinking in pubs and restaurants in England will no longer be at the mercy of the unpredictable British weather, with indoor hospitality allowed to reopen.

But in comments released by No. 10 Downing Street ahead of restrictions being eased, the U.K. prime minister warned the public to “take this next step with a heavy dose of caution.”

“I urge everyone to be cautious and take responsibility when enjoying new freedoms today in order to keep the virus at bay,” he added.

Arrival from India

On Sunday, Johnson’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock was unleashed to hammer home the potential risks the new COVID variant, first discovered in India, may pose.

Just over 1,300 cases have so far been identified, and Hancock said it is becoming the dominant strain in some parts of the country, including Bolton and Blackburn. There are also smaller numbers of cases in other parts of the country.

The virus could “spread like wildfire” among unvaccinated groups, he warned. “If it gets out of hand, we will have a very, very large number of cases,” he said. Even with the “high” protection from the vaccine, it was “not absolute” and a very large number of cases would have a “knock-on to hospitalizations” from the disease, he added.

Ministers have been buoyed by “very early data” from Oxford University labs that suggests the U.K.’s vaccines do work against the new version of the disease. But with the U.K. government only hitting its target of giving two-thirds of the population a first vaccine last week, the rollout may not be moving fast enough to avert a wave of hospitalizations.

“We’re in a race between the vaccination program and the virus and this new variant has given the virus some extra legs in that race,” Hancock warned.

People over the age of 35 will be able to book their COVID-19 vaccine this week, and second doses for the most vulnerable are being brought forward to give the most vulnerable maximum protection.

Reverse, reverse

For now, ministers are pushing ahead with plans to ease restrictions.

Johnson is under pressure from his own backbenchers not to veer off course. Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith warned ministers over the weekend to “hold their nerves,” saying a “stop-go, stop-go approach will roll us into the winter with an economic disaster.”

“We have got to be careful, but we are so jittery we are in danger of frightening ourselves into a corner,” he said.

Johnson has, however, already raised the prospect of delaying England’s planned final easing of restrictions in June. Hancock too did not rule out a reversal in the easing of some restrictions when asked about the prospect on Sunday.

“I very much hope not and our goal remains, our strategy remains to take a cautious and irreversible approach to ensure that we are always looking at the data all the way through and, crucially, to use the vaccine to get us out of this pandemic,” he said.

In the meantime, the hope in ministerial circles is that Britons will avoid going over-the-top on Monday, and keep indoor contact to a minimum.

“Outside is safer than inside, so even though you can from tomorrow meet up inside, it’s still better to meet up outside,” Hancock said.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email pro@politico.eu for a complimentary trial.

 

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Netanyahu doesn’t see ‘immediate’ end to latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict

'We're trying to degrade Hamas' terrorist abilities and to degrade their will to do this again.'

Netanyahu doesn’t see ‘immediate’ end to latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hopes that the escalating violence between Israeli and Palestinian forces doesn’t continue for very long, he acknowledged Sunday morning that he doesn’t foresee an “immediate” end to the conflict.

“Well, we hope that it doesn’t continue very long,” Netanyahu told CBS’ John Dickerson on Face the Nation.” “But we were attacked by Hamas on our national day, Jerusalem Day — unprovoked attacks on Jerusalem and then thousands of rockets and missiles on our cities. And I think any country has to defend itself, has a natural right of self-defense.”

Netanyahu was referring to rockets being fired from the Gaza Strip, territory controlled by Hamas. Those rocket attacks began amid unrest in Jerusalem attributed to a number of causes, including Palestinian complaints about evictions of residents from an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem and an Israeli raid on the Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan — all piled upon decades of grievances and terrible memories.

“We’ll do whatever it takes to restore order and quiet and the security of people and deterrence. We’re trying to degrade Hamas’ terrorist abilities and to degrade their will to do this again. So it’ll take some time. I hope it won’t take long, but it’s not immediate,” he said, saying Americans would certainly react the same way if there were attacks on U.S. cities.

Netanyahu also denied reports that he had rejected a truce offered by Egypt, which also borders on Gaza, and accepted by Hamas.

“That’s not what I know,” he said of the suggested truce.

“And, frankly, if Hamas thought that they could just fire rockets and then sit back and enjoy immunity, that’s false. We’re targeting a terrorist organization that is targeting our civilians and hiding behind their civilians, using them as human shields. We’re doing everything we can to hit the terrorists themselves, their rockets, their rocket caches and their arms. But we’re not just going to let them get away with it, and neither would you.”

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