England’s final COVID-19 restrictions will lift on July 19, despite cases rising sharply in recent weeks and hospitalisations and deaths creeping up too. With the country facing another wave of infections, is now the right time to be fully opening up?
It’s a difficult decision to weigh up, says Andrew Lee, reader in global public health at the University of Sheffield. What’s clear is that vaccines have been central to the government’s thinking. Although cases are rising, the risk of severe disease in fully vaccinated adults has fallen by more than 90%, and at least 80% of British adults have had at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, with 60% having had two. There’s good evidence therefore that vaccines will prevent this new wave of infections from generating the big amount of severe disease seen in previous waves.
But whenever the last stage of reopening happens, cases will spike as people mix more – and this will mean some people getting seriously ill and dying. One way of reducing this would be to delay the final stage of lifting until even more people are fully vaccinated. But the government has not opted for this – the reason being that, if a spike in cases is inevitable following reopening, it’s better that it happens in the summer, when the NHS is better able to handle it.
A further factor could be that the UK’s vaccination rate is slowing. Younger people have been less willing to take the vaccine, which means that the country could be approaching maximum uptake for the jab. If that’s the case, then delaying reopening to increase vaccine coverage makes less sense – as big increases may not be forthcoming.
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The Tokyo Olympic Games, which begin in just over two weeks, will be held without spectators. Japan appears to be entering a new wave of coronavirus infections and has declared a state of emergency. Its slow vaccine rollout – with only 26% of adults having received at least one vaccine dose – is one reason why cases again are spiking again.
Fans, though, are only one part of the risk with the Olympics, note Maximilian de Courten and Hans Westerbeek. Some 90,000 athletes, support staff and journalists will enter the largely unvaccinated country during the games. It’s almost certain some will bring in more of the coronavirus. Even full vaccination and pre-departure testing among those arriving can’t prevent this, as one Ugandan team member has shown. They tested positive for COVID-19 once in Japan, and a further team member has also caught the virus. Both were fully vaccinated.
It’s a reminder that, yes, you can still get COVID-19 after being vaccinated. However, says Lara Herrero, research leader in virology and infectious disease at Griffith University, this isn’t surprising: no vaccine is 100% effective, and how a person responds to one is influenced by many factors, including age, gender, medication, diet, exercise, health and stress levels. There is, though, strong evidence that COVID-19 symptoms are much weaker in people who have been vaccinated – so they are still definitely worth taking.