England’s indoor bars and restaurants reopen despite Indian variant concerns

Health secretary blames vaccine hesitancy for rise in coronavirus cases in Lancashire

Indoor service returned to bars and restaurants in England on Monday as museums, theatres and cinemas reopened but the spread of the variant of coronavirus that originated in India threatened to delay the next phase of reopening.

Health secretary Matt Hancock told MPs that 86 local authorities had now reported five or more cases of the new variant, which appears to be more transmissible than other strains of the virus.

He said the Indian variant was now the dominant strain in Bolton, Blackburn and Darwen in Lancashire and was rising among all age groups and he blamed vaccine hesitancy for the illness it had caused.

“Just look at what is happening in Bolton hospital, where the majority of people in hospital with coronavirus were eligible for the jab but have chosen not yet to have the jab, and have ended up in hospital, some of them in critical care,” he said.

People aged 37 and over will be eligible for the vaccine from Tuesday and Mr Hancock said that, despite hesitancy in some communities and some parts of the country, enthusiasm for vaccination was high and the rollout was having a major impact on mortality.

“The data suggests that the vaccine has already saved over 12,000 lives and prevented over 33,000 people from being hospitalised. We are protecting people at a very rapid pace. Last week was the biggest week of vaccinations since the end of March. Thirty-six million people have now had a first dose and yesterday we reached the milestone of 20 million people having had their second dose across the UK,” he said

“I am delighted to see the figures released by YouGov today which show that the UK has the highest vaccination enthusiasm in the world – with 90 per cent of people saying that they have had or will have the jab.”

Downing Street said that it would delay publishing reviews of social distancing and other coronavirus restrictions until the impact of the Indian variant had been established. Most restrictions, including on numbers who can gather indoors, were due to be lifted on June 21st but that timetable could slip if the number of cases and hospitalisations rises too far.

From Monday, up to six people or two households can gather indoors and up to 30 can meet outdoors. Bars, restaurants and other indoor venues remain subject to the one-metre social distancing rule.

Labour's shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth asked why more steps had not been taken to make indoor venues safer.

“More venues are opening up today. But we know so much more about airborne spread of this virus than we did a year ago. Why aren’t we supporting venues with ventilation? What we are doing in supermarkets, shopping centres and larger venues where air is circulated around the building to put in place Covid secure air filtration systems?” he said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times