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Low hospital admissions key to ‘tricky’ decision on lifting Covid restrictions on 21 June, Matt Hancock says

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 09 June 2021 15:39 BST
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Link between Covid cases and hospitalisations is ‘severed but not broken’, Hancock says

Covid restrictions will be lifted in England this month if hospital admissions remain low in the coming days, Matt Hancock has suggested, but he admitted it was “a tricky call”.

With the clock ticking towards the crucial decision next weekend, the health secretary pointed to encouraging data defying predictions that the surge of the Delta variant would swamp wards.

The now-dominant strain is 40 per cent more transmissible than the Alpha (Kent) variant, Mr Hancock said – a figure the Sage advisory group had forecast would lead to more patients in hospital than previous Covid waves.

But the numbers are “broadly flat”, he pointed out, in growing evidence that the successful vaccination programme has “severed” the link between infections and serious illness.

“It is too early to make a final decision,” Mr Hancock said, about whether to complete the roadmap on 21 June, later calling it “a tricky call”.

“We’ll keep watching the data for another week or so and, critically, watching that link on the number of cases to the number of people who end up in hospital,” he told Sky News.

But he added: “It is absolutely true that the number of people ending up in hospital is broadly flat at the moment, whereas the number of cases is rising – showing that that link is not absolute as it once was.”

Later, Mr Hancock again stressed that the number of people needing emergency care was the key test, saying: “What matters for opening is the data and the link to hospitalisations.”

However, the health secretary did not rule out keeping rules for mask-wearing and working from home guidance, even if, for example, the “rule of six” for indoor gatherings is scrapped.

The greatest pressure from businesses and Tory MPs is to end social distancing rules in venues – a decision shelved last month when the rate of infection began to grow again.

Chris Hobson, the head of NHS Providers, has suggested the vaccine has “broken the chain” between infection and serious illness, with “very few” double-jabbed patients now ending up in hospital.

The latest Covid dashboard says 869 patients were admitted in the past week – virtually unchanged on the previous week – but no figures have been published since 1 June.

Professor Anne Johnson, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, agreed it was “reassuring that we haven’t seen yet an uptick in the number of admissions and deaths”.

But she warned it was too early to be certain – with three weeks, typically, between the easing of restrictions and hospitalisation – adding: “So we need to watch very carefully what the outcomes are.”

The latest official figures revealed 5,341 new infections over the previous 24-hour period, but only four deaths recorded.

Meanwhile, Labour backed the vaccination of children, despite some world health leaders calling for poor countries to be given jabs first.

“I think you have to listen to what people are saying on the front line,” said Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, pointing to support for the move in hotspot areas including Bolton and Blackburn.

Ms Nandy suggested “rising infection rates” could force a delay to the roadmap – but rejected the worst-hit areas moving ahead more slowly than the rest of the country, because “local lockdowns simply didn’t work”.

Mr Hancock faced criticism after denying he had claimed to have “thrown a protective ring around care homes” at the start of the pandemic – despite making the now-notorious statement live on TV.

On the roadmap decision, the health secretary said: “We will give people enough time ahead of the 21 June date which is pencilled in as the next step – which is to be not before 21 June – and the critical thing is to see whether the four tests we have set have been met.

“That’s in terms of the number of cases, and cases are rising slightly, the number of hospitalisations, which are much more flat. That’s because the third test, the rollout of the vaccine, is going incredibly well.

“Then, of course, we have to look at the impact of new variants and we have seen a very significant impact of a new variant – the Delta variant – over the last month or so.”

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