The Irish Times view on the Delta variant threat: avoiding a new surge

A new wave of infections is possible this summer, but it’s not inevitable

Morning commuters cross London Bridge on Monday. British officials have raised concern over the virus’s Delta variant and rising infection rates. Photograph: Rob Pinney/Getty Images

Morning commuters cross London Bridge on Monday. British officials have raised concern over the virus’s Delta variant and rising infection rates. Photograph: Rob Pinney/Getty Images

 

Public health specialists in Europe have for weeks been warning that the rapid spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant of Covid-19 could thwart plans to ease restrictions for the summer. Those concerns are now being vindicated. Despite the impressive progress of the United Kingdom’s vaccination campaign, which has already given full protection to 45 per cent of the population, British prime minister Boris Johnson has been forced to delay the final stage in the lifting of lockdown restrictions, which was due to take place on June 21st but was yesterday postponed for another four weeks.

Some 7,500 people tested positive for Covid-19 across the UK on Sunday, an increase of more than 2,000 in the daily rate compared with a week ago. Of particular concern has been the spread of the Delta strain, first detected in India, which is now the dominant variant in the UK and has been found to be up to 60 per cent more transmissible than Alpha, the mutation that previously dominated in the UK. Johnson is now paying the price for being late in restricting travel from India and has moved to slow down the reopening so as to avoid having to take the politically costly decision to reintroduce restrictions later on.

Britain’s problem is Ireland’s too. Some 140 cases of Delta have been detected in the Republic, and a further 111 probable and confirmed cases have been reported in Northern Ireland. The true figures are likely to be higher. Stormont health minister Robin Swann has warned that if Delta becomes the dominant variant in Northern Ireland, it could cause a surge in hospital admissions by late summer.

On both sides of the Border, basic public health etiquette, including mask-wearing and social distancing, must continue to be observed

The nature of the response on both sides of the Border will differ in certain respects. In Dublin, the Government at its meeting today is expected to toughen requirements for those travelling from Britain even as it gets rid of self-quarantine rules for other visitors. In the North, as in Britain, a key challenge is dispensing second doses as quickly as possible. Studies have found that protection against Delta increases significantly after a second dose, a finding that has prompted calls for the UK to reduce the interval between doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine – the linchpin of the British vaccination campaign – to eight weeks.

In other respects, however, the tools for fighting the variant are the same everywhere. On both sides of the Border, basic public health etiquette, including mask-wearing and social distancing, must continue to be observed through the summer until herd immunity has been achieved. The timetables for reopening must be kept under review, politically unpalatable though that may be.

A new wave of infections is possible this summer, but it’s not inevitable. With reactive and flexible public health measures and continued adherence to guidelines on individual behaviour, the virus can be kept under control.

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