British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Monday that he intends to lift most government-mandated COVID-19 restrictions later this month, despite a rise in case counts attributed to the emergence of the Delta variant of the virus.
The announcement signals that England is moving toward entering the fourth and final step of its previously announced roadmap out of pandemic lockdowns after having paused the process in June in response to rising case counts.
Officials say a final decision on whether to advance to step four will be announced on July 12.
Mr. Johnson suggested during a news conference Monday that he is pushing for the move. “As we come to the fourth step, we have to balance the risks,” the prime minister said. “The risks of the disease which the vaccines have reduced, but very far from eliminated. And the risks of continuing with legally enforced restrictions that inevitably take their toll on people’s lives, livelihoods and on people’s health and mental health.”
Moving to step four would make wearing face masks voluntary, end one-meter social distancing requirements, and lift limits placed on indoor and outdoor gatherings among other restrictions.
“We must be honest with ourselves that if we can’t open our society in the next few weeks when we will be helped by the arrival of summer and the school holidays then we must ask ourselves when will we be able to return to normal,” Mr. Johnson said.
The government of the United Kingdom expects all adults to have had the chance to receive the first dose of the vaccine by July 19.
Mr. Johnson said Monday that the government will shorten the interval between the first and second dose from 12 to eight weeks for individuals under 40-years-old, which would put the country on track for all British citizens to have a chance to receive the full course of the vaccine by mid-September.
But officials remain cautious, given a recent rise in cases largely attributed to the spread of the Delta variant, which is estimated to be 40% to 80% more transmissible than previous variants, according to the British government.
Britain has witnessed an increase in positive case counts, with 229.9 cases per 100,000 population reported in the seven-day period ending June 30, up from a low of around 20 cases per 100,000 over a seven-day period ending in early May.
The British government will continue to issue guidance after transitioning to step four, but Mr. Johnson said Monday that the new approach will prioritize individuals making their own informed decisions, rather than the government imposing legal restrictions.