England to demand vaccination proof for clubs, mass events

By Andrew MacAskill

LONDON (Reuters) -British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday that English nightclubs and other venues with large crowds will require patrons to present proof of full vaccination from the end of September.

Clubbers flocked on Monday to the first live music events without restrictions since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The government reopened nightclubs and dropped almost all coronavirus measures in England in a bet that mass vaccinations will prevent another deadly wave of COVID-19.

But later in the day, Johnson announced that people who were not fully vaccinated, including those who had not had both doses of two-shot immunizations, would be barred from nightclubs.

The decision follows large outbreaks linked to nightclubs in other countries such as the Netherlands and Israel, where authorities were forced to close them again.

“I can serve notice now that by the end of September when all over 18’s will have had their chance to be double jabbed, we’re planning to make full vaccination the condition of entry to nightclubs and other venues where large crowds gather,” Johnson told a press conference.

“Proof of a negative test will no longer be enough.”

Britain’s Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said nightclubs and other closed venues could be “potential super spreading events” because of crowds in close contact.

“I would expect that with opening of nightclubs, we’ll continue to see an increase in cases, and we will see outbreaks related to specific nightclubs as well,” he said.

Johnson said that the government was not planning similar requirements for pubs. “I certainly don’t want to see passports for pubs,” he said.

(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

COVID-19 crisis could return quickly as infections surge, UK adviser warns

By Alistair Smout and Kanishka Singh

LONDON (Reuters) -England’s coronavirus crisis could return again surprisingly quickly and the country is not yet out of the woods, the British government’s chief medical adviser said, as infections surged ahead of the lifting of legal restrictions.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is removing most pandemic restrictions in England from July 19, saying a rapid rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has largely broken the link between infections and serious illness or death.

Some scientists are worried, though. Daily reported cases are at their highest since January, while the reproduction “R” number remains above one, indicating a continued exponential growth of cases.

“We are not by any means out of the woods yet on this,” Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said late on Thursday during a webinar hosted by the Science Museum.

He added that the doubling time for hospitalizations was around three weeks, and that low numbers of people in hospital currently could escalate in next couple of months.

“It doesn’t take many doublings until we’re in actually quite scary numbers again … I don’t think we should underestimate the fact that we could get into trouble again surprisingly fast,” Whitty said.

The Office for National Statistics estimated as many as 1 in 95 people in England were infected with COVID-19 in the week to July 10, the highest prevalence since February.

“New cases of Delta will lead to long COVID, hospital admissions and deaths,” said James Naismith, Director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute

“The ratios between these have been massively changed by the safe and effective vaccines we are administering but the link is not eliminated.”

WRECKING THE ECONOMY

Britain’s COVID-19 death toll is among the highest in the world but two-thirds of its adult population have been fully vaccinated.

On Monday, the last remaining businesses still closed in England, including nightclubs, can finally reopen, but business leaders have warned that the self-isolation requirement for people exposed to positive cases could hinder the economy.

Over 520,000 contact tracing alerts were sent through the National Health Service app in the week to July 7.

“The hospitality sector, 20% of staff are isolating, the health service up to 25% of staff are absent, and buses and trains delayed,” Karan Bilimoria, president of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), told LBC radio.

“This cannot go on … This is wrecking the economy.”

A spokesperson for Johnson said that “self-isolation remains one of the best tools that we have to tackle the virus”.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout in London; Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru and Kate Holton and Elizabeth Piper in London; Editing by Karishma Singh, Guy Faulconbridge, Catherine Evans and Raissa Kasolowsky)

‘Be cautious’: Johnson goes ahead with lifting England’s COVID curbs

By Costas Pitas and Alistair Smout

LONDON (Reuters) -British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people on Monday to show caution when nearly all remaining COVID-19 restrictions are lifted in England next week, saying an increase in cases underlined that the pandemic was by no means over.

England will from July 19 be the first nation in Britain to lift the legal requirement to wear masks and for people to socially distance. The government says Britain’s vaccination drive – one of the world’s fastest – has largely broken the link between infections and serious illness or death.

But what was once billed as “freedom day” is now being treated with wariness by ministers after a new surge in cases and fears that there could be as many as 100,000 new infections a day over the summer.

Johnson set a somber tone, defending his decision to lift most of the remaining restrictions by saying the four conditions the government set itself had been met, but also warning the country that more people would die from the coronavirus.

“We think now is the right moment to proceed…But it is absolutely vital that we proceed now with caution and I cannot say this powerfully or emphatically enough – this pandemic is not over,” he told a press conference.

“To take these steps we must be cautious and must be vaccinated,” he said, adding that England would see “more hospitalizations and more deaths from COVID”.

Johnson added: “I generally urge everyone to keep thinking of others and to consider the risks.”

Earlier, health minister Sajid Javid told parliament that people should still wear masks in crowded areas like on public transport and should only gradually move back to the workplace, and that the government would encourage businesses holding mass events to use health certification as a way to open up.

Business welcomed the move, but also called on the government to offer clearer guidance. Claire Walker, co-executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce, said companies still did not have the full picture they needed.

“Business leaders aren’t public health experts and cannot be expected to know how best to operate when confusing and sometimes contradictory advice is coming from official sources,” she said.

GLOBAL STRUGGLE

After 18 months of pandemic, governments around the world have been wrestling with how and when to reopen their economies.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte conceded on Monday that coronavirus restrictions had been lifted in the Netherlands too soon and he apologized as infections surged to their highest levels of the year.

Britain has implemented one of the world’s swiftest vaccination programs, with more than 87% of adults having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 66% having received two.

The Conservative government argues that the fact that deaths and hospital admissions remain far lower than before, even though cases have risen sharply, is proof that the vaccines are saving lives and it is now safer to open up.

But the surge in infections to rates unseen since the winter has raised concern, with some epidemiologists saying the Euro soccer championships might have helped fuel the rise.

Britain, which ranks 20th in the world for per-capita reported deaths from COVID-19, on Monday reported a further 34,471 COVID-19 cases, up 26% in a week, and six additional deaths within 28 days of a positive test.

London’s Wembley Stadium hosted the Euro 2020 final on Sunday between England and Italy. Large crowds gathered in London, including around the stadium, and there were reports that some had gained entry to the match without tickets to join the more than 60,000 who had them – much to the dismay of the World Health Organization.

“Am I supposed to be enjoying watching transmission happening in front of my eyes?” WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove tweeted in the late stages of the match.

“The #COVID19 pandemic is not taking a break tonight … #SARSCoV2 #DeltaVariant will take advantage of unvaccinated people, in crowded settings, unmasked, screaming/shouting/singing. Devastating.”

(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper, William James and Michael Holden in London, Emma Farge in Geneva; Editing by Nick Macfie and Mark Heinrich)

COVID-19 outbreak closes hotel hosting G7 summit delegation

CARBIS BAY, England (Reuters) – A hotel, which British media reported was being used by members of Germany’s delegation to a Group of Seven summit in England, has closed because members of staff tested positive for COVID-19, its owners said on Thursday.

The Pedn Olva hotel in St Ives, a seaside town adjacent to the location of the three-day G7 leaders’ meeting in Cornwall, southwest England, had shut temporarily on advice from health officials and the local authority, the owners said.

Among the guests were security staff for the German delegation and a media team working for a U.S. broadcaster, Sky News reported.

“Following extensive discussions over the last few days with PHE (Public Health England) and Cornwall Council, we have taken the decision to fully close the hotel,” said a spokesperson for the owners, St Austell Brewery.

“We fully appreciate the inconvenience given the limited accommodation options available in the area at the moment but the safety and security of our team and guests is our upmost priority.”

The spokesperson said the hotel would reopen once a full COVID-19 deep clean had taken place and there were enough staff to run it.

(Reporting by William James and Michael Holden; Editing by William Schomberg)

UK lowers COVID-19 alert status as pressure on hospitals eases

LONDON (Reuters) – The chief medical officers of the United Kingdom lowered their COVID-19 alert level on Thursday, citing a gradual reduction in pressure on the health service.

“Following advice from the Joint Biosecurity Center and in the light of the most recent data, the four UK Chief Medical Officers and NHS England National Medical Director agree that the UK alert level should move from level 5 to level 4 in all four nations,” Britain’s health ministry said in a statement.

Public health services in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland operate separately in most cases.

“The health services across the four nations remain under significant pressure with a high number of patients in hospital, however thanks to the efforts of public we are now seeing numbers consistently declining,” the medical officers added.

(Reporting by Andy Bruce, editing by David Milliken)

‘One-way road to freedom’: Johnson sets out cautious lockdown exit plan

By William James and Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled a map out of lockdown for England on Monday that would keep some businesses shuttered until the summer, saying caution was necessary to ensure there were no reversals on a “one-way road to freedom”.

After imposing one of the strictest lockdowns in the western world in January to counter a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus, Johnson said Britain was now in a position to enjoy the fruits of one of the world’s fastest vaccine programs.

Starting in two weeks with the reopening of schools, the phased plan will go through four stages, with at least five weeks in between each stage. The final step, when most restrictions will be lifted, will not start until June 21 at the earliest.

Britain and the world would not eliminate COVID-19 altogether, Johnson said. “And we cannot persist indefinitely with restrictions that debilitate our economy, our physical and mental well-being, and the life chances of our children,” Johnson told parliament.

“And that is why it is so crucial that this roadmap is cautious but also irreversible. We’re setting out on, what I hope and believe, is a one-way road to freedom.”

With almost 130,000 fatalities, Britain has suffered the world’s fifth-highest official death toll from the pandemic and its economy has seen its biggest crash in over 300 years.

But in two months it has already managed to provide an initial vaccine dose to more than a quarter of the population, the fastest rollout of any big country, making it a test case for governments worldwide hoping to return life to normal.

Even with encouraging data on the impact of vaccines, the British government’s cautious approach highlights how slow a process it will likely be for many countries.

UNDER PRESSURE

Johnson has come under pressure, including from many in his Conservative Party, to allow more freedoms to millions stuck at home and offer hope to firms forced to close.

Under his plan schools will reopen on March 8, freeing parents who have had to juggle work and home schooling.

However, easing of social mixing bans will initially be limited and the government will ask people to work from home when possible for some weeks until it has completed a review into social distancing at some point before the summer.

At the end of March, a small number of people will be able to mix outdoors, but non-essential shops, and outdoor-only service in restaurants and pubs, will not reopen until April 12 at the earliest.

As the plan unfolds, lawmakers will have a chance to vote on specific steps. Authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which are responsible for their own public health, will also ease restrictions over the coming months.

There was mixed reaction from business leaders to the plan. The Confederation of British Industry said it offered hope, but the hospitality industry said it would be hard for many businesses to survive until they could reopen.

“Even with the prime minister’s new roadmap, the future of thousands of firms and millions of jobs still hangs by a thread,” said Adam Marshall, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce.

There were widespread calls for finance minister Rishi Sunak to extend support, such as schemes that have paid the salaries of workers sent home because of the pandemic. An announcement will not come until Sunak delivers his budget next month, but Johnson promised not to “pull the rug out”.

“For the duration of the pandemic the government will continue to do whatever it takes to protect jobs and livelihoods across the UK,” Johnson told parliament.

SPEEDY VACCINE ROLL-OUT

Johnson, who was treated in intensive care for COVID-19 last year, has been forced to juggle pressure from Conservative lawmakers to restart the economy and from scientific advisers who fear a resurgence of the virus if he unlocks too quickly.

“The message that comes out of all of the modelling is … get (infection) numbers down before you start releasing, go slowly, (and) go in blocks that you can measure the effect of after four or five weeks,” the government’s top science adviser Patrick Vallance told reporters.

England’s vaccine campaign is significantly reducing cases, with a drop of around 70% in infections among healthcare workers who have had a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, health officials said on Monday.

Britain moved faster than most countries to secure vaccine supplies and has been inoculating people rapidly since December, a strategy that has driven sterling higher on hopes of an economic rebound. The pound hit a new three-year high of $1.4050 in early London trading on Monday.

Some 17.7 million Britons, over a quarter of the 67 million population, have now received a first dose, behind only Israel and the United Arab Emirates in vaccinations per capita.

(Additional reporting by Alistair Smout, Estelle Shirbon, Guy Faulconbridge, Kate Holton, David Milliken, writing by Michael Holden and Elizabeth Piper, editing by Giles Elgood)

England goes into new COVID-19 lockdown as cases surge

By William Schomberg and Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday ordered England into a new national lockdown to try to slow a surge in COVID-19 cases that threatens to overwhelm parts of the health system before a vaccine program reaches a critical mass.

Johnson said a new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus was spreading at great speed and urgent action was needed to slow it down.

“As I speak to you tonight, our hospitals are under more pressure from COVID than any time since the start of the pandemic,” Johnson said in a televised address to the country as he ditched his regional approach to fighting the pandemic.

“With most of the country already under extreme measures, it’s clear that we need to do more together to bring this new variant under control.

“We must therefore go into a national lockdown, which is tough enough to contain this variant. That means the government is once again instructing you to stay at home.”

Johnson said the measures would include school closures from Tuesday and rules requiring most people to stay at home apart from essential shopping, exercise and other limited exceptions.

He said that if the timetable of the vaccination program went as planned and the number of cases and deaths responded to the lockdown measures as expected, it should be possible to start moving out of lockdown by the middle of February.

However, he urged caution about the timetable.

NEW VACCINE LAUNCHED

As Britain grapples with the world’s sixth highest death toll and cases hit a new high, the country’s chief medical officers said the spread of COVID-19 risked overwhelming parts of the health system within 21 days.

The surge in cases has been driven by the new variant of COVID-19, officials say, and while they acknowledge that the pandemic is spreading more quickly than expected, they say there is also light at the end of the tunnel – vaccinations.

Johnson’s government earlier touted a scientific “triumph” as Britain became the first country in the world to start vaccinating its population with Oxford University and AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 shot.

Dialysis patient Brian Pinker on Monday received the first vaccination outside of a trial.

“I am so pleased to be getting the COVID vaccine today and really proud that it is one that was invented in Oxford,” said the 82-year-old retired maintenance manager, just a few hundred meters from where the vaccine was developed.

But even with the vaccines being rolled out, the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths keep rising.

More than 75,000 people in the United Kingdom have died from COVID-19 within 28 days of a positive test since the start of the pandemic. A record 58,784 new cases of the coronavirus were reported on Monday.

Moving a few hours ahead of Johnson, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon imposed the most stringent lockdown for Scotland since last spring.

The devolved administration in Wales said all schools and colleges there should move to online learning until Jan. 18.

(Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon, Alistair Smout and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Sturgeon orders Scots to stay at home as new variant advances

By Kate Holton and Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – Scotland on Monday imposed the most stringent COVID-19 lockdown since last March and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would shortly impose tougher curbs in England to contain a rapidly spreading outbreak of a new variant of the coronavirus.

The United Kingdom has the world’s sixth-highest official coronavirus death toll – 75,024 – and the number of new infections is soaring across the country.

As Johnson mulled tougher measures for England, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the new variant accounted for nearly half of new cases in Scotland and is 70% more transmissible.

Scots, she said, would be legally required to stay at home for January from midnight. Schools will close for all but the children of essential workers.

“I am more concerned about the situation that we face now than I have been at any time since March,” Sturgeon told the Scottish parliament.

“As a result of this new variant, (the virus) has just learned to run much faster, and has most definitely picked up pace in the past couple of weeks,” Sturgeon said.

Visiting a hospital to see the first people receive the vaccine made by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, Johnson said the country faced “tough, tough” weeks to come.

“If you look at the numbers, there’s no question that we’re going to have to take tougher measures and we’ll be announcing those in due course,” Johnson said. “We’ve got the virus really surging.”

England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland implement their own COVID-19 responses though they are trying to coordinate more across the United Kingdom.

SCHOOLS

England is currently divided into four tiers of restrictions, depending on the prevalence of the virus, with the vast majority of the country in Tiers 3 and 4 where social mixing is restricted and restaurants and pubs are closed.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said earlier that the rules in Tier 3 were clearly not working.

With England moving back towards the strict lockdown of the first wave in March, Johnson was also asked if schools would have to close once again and return to online learning.

He said that would remain a last resort for primary schools given the social and educational damage that can be done to isolated children.

But he indicated they may need to rethink a plan to reopen secondary schools for pupils aged between 11 and 18.

“It looks as though secondary schools probably play more of a role in the spread of the epidemic than primary schools, so we’ll have to look very hard at what we do with secondary schools later in the month,” he said.

The government has spent the year trying to balance the need to shut down the country to contain the virus without hammering the economy.

The first national coronavirus lockdown in May last year prompted a 25% drop in economic output – unprecedented in modern records – leaving Britain’s economy harder hit by the pandemic than most others.

While the economy recovered partially in the third quarter, renewed lockdown measures threaten to cause a double-dip recession at the start of 2021.

(Reporting by Kate Holton and Guy Faulconbridge, Andy Bruce; Editing by Sarah Young and Hugh Lawson)

Europe crosses 500,000 COVID-19 deaths as new variant spreads

By Anurag Maan and Shaina Ahluwalia

(Reuters) – Europe became the first region worldwide to cross 500,000 COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, according to a Reuters tally, as a new variant of the coronavirus discovered in Britain threatened the region’s prevention measures to curb the pandemic.

Reports of the mutated variant out of England prompted a pre-Christmas lockdown and have forced dozens of countries to close their borders to British travelers this week.

Italy, the nation with the highest death toll in Europe, on Sunday detected a patient infected with the new variant as have Denmark and France.

To curb the spread, European countries are considering screening passengers on flights from UK and obligating quarantine for travelers upon arrival.

Earlier this month, the United Kingdom became the first nation to approve the Pfizer Inc – BioNTech vaccine followed by the United States, European Union and other countries.

Europe has reported about 30% of the global COVID-19 fatalities and cases so far, according to a Reuters tally.

Europe’s death toll has accelerated in recent months. Since the first COVID-19 death was reported in France in February, it took eight months for the region to reach 250,000 deaths. It took only 60 days for the region to go from 250,000 to 500,000 deaths.

France, Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom and Russia have reported hundreds of deaths a day and the five countries account for almost 60% of the region’s total fatalities.

Globally there have been 77.52 million cases and 1.71 million deaths, according to a Reuters tally.

(Reporting by Anurag Maan and Shaina Ahluwalia in Bengaluru; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Anger grows as truckers stranded in England miss Christmas at home

By Ben Makori and Gerhard Mey

DOVER, England (Reuters) – Dan Jinca, a Romanian truck driver stranded in England after much of the world shut its borders to Britain, is angry, and he is not alone.

The 47-year-old will miss Christmas at home and he thinks the official excuse for the border closures – a new variant of the novel coronavirus spreading fast across southern England – is nonsense.

“We are upset and we don’t know why we have to be in this situation,” Jinca told Reuters, speaking English. “They say it is about corona. We don’t know.”

Hundreds of trucks are lined up, snaking into the horizon across southern England after the border closures. Many drivers have been stuck for days, eating up their reserves of food along roads that now stand silent.

No matter what is decided in London, Paris and Brussels, Jinca, a father, will miss Christmas at home in Bumbești-Jiu, about 186 miles (300 km) west of Bucharest, because he has too far to drive.

“Now it is done, it is finished. From here to go home we have about 2,000 miles,” he said. “It is about 45 hours to drive non-stop – no sleep, just drive. We can’t make it.”

After 7 years in trucking, it has never happened to him before.

Sergio Robles, a 41-year-old Spanish truck driver, said the conditions – stuck on a road in December for three days and counting – were a disgrace.

And he wants a solution – and information – fast.

“They don’t give us food, they don’t give us drinks, they don’t give us sanitation, they don’t offer us anything,” he said in Spanish. “The situation is basically inhumane, so what we are asking for is a solution.”

“I think and believe that this happening now isn’t due to coronavirus or anything, it’s due to Brexit, due to internal politics or something of that manner.”

Robles will also miss Christmas with his family in Madrid.

“We are the transport that moves the world, so to say. And they treat us badly,” he said.

“They treat us as if we are garbage. We don’t get to spend Christmas at home, not with family or children or anything. I think there’s nothing right in all of this.”

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Mike Collett-White)