Delta variant may make UK less of a virus outlier

The UK’s successful vaccination programme means 63% of citizens have received at least one jab.

  
FILE PHOTO: A man receives an injection with a dose of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, at a vaccination centre in Baitul Futuh Mosque, amid the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in London, Britain, March 28, 2021. REUTERS

FILE PHOTO: A man receives an injection with a dose of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, at a vaccination centre in Baitul Futuh Mosque, amid the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in London, Britain, March 28, 2021. REUTERS

Henry Nicholls

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

LONDON - Britain is back being a Covid-19 outlier. Last year’s 9.9% pandemic-fuelled fall in UK GDP was way ahead of the 3.5%, 4.9% and 8.1% recorded by the United States, Germany and France respectively. While Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s lockdown extension on Monday makes it seem like more of the same, the lighter restrictions elsewhere may not persist.

Britain has certainly moved onto the Covid-19 red list. France, Germany and the United States have falling infection rates, but the daily number of UK Covid-19 cases has more than doubled to 7,500 since the beginning of June. The so-called Delta variant, which originated from India, is responsible for more than 90% of new cases.

Johnson’s decision to try to boost vaccination rates while maintaining Covid-19 restrictions until July has implications for an economy which relies on travel and hospitality for nearly 11% of output, a higher dependency than its international peers. By contrast, the United States has fully reopened: apart from a few states like Connecticut that have restrictions on indoor dining, daily activities are largely back to normal. France and Germany’s reopening has been more cautious, but they are now pushing ahead with the next phase as Britain holds back. In France restaurants and cafes are open for indoor dining at half capacity while in Germany indoor dining is permitted in states with low infection rates.

Yet these economies will have to execute a sharp volte-face if the Delta variant really takes hold. It has roughly doubled in America every two weeks since April and now accounts for one in 10 infections. Scientists reckon it is 60% more transmissible than the Alpha variant which spread from Britain and which is now responsible for the majority of America’s cases.

There’s another differentiating factor. The UK’s successful vaccination programme means 63% of citizens have received at least one jab. In the United States, Germany and France the proportion is around 50%. Travel restrictions with the UK will limit the scope of the new variant to pass their borders, but once inside their more open economies it could be more deadly. German jab maker CureVac’s suggestion on Thursday that current vaccines could be less effective against virus mutations are a further complication. Either way, the eventual distribution of economic pain may not look quite as skewed as it did last year.

CONTEXT NEWS

- UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on June 14 delayed his plans to lift most remaining Covid-19 restrictions by a month, warning that thousands more people might die if he did nothing because of the rapid spread of the more infectious Delta variant.

- Under the final stage of a plan outlined by Johnson in February, he had hoped to lift most social restrictions on June 21, meaning pubs, restaurants, nightclubs and other hospitality venues could fully reopen.

- That much-anticipated step was pushed back to July 19.

- The situation would be reviewed on June 28, which could allow the reopening to be brought forward, although Johnson's spokesman said that was considered unlikely.

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

(SIGN UP FOR BREAKINGVIEWS EMAIL ALERTS http://bit.ly/BVsubscribe | Editing by George Hay, Oliver Taslic and Karen Kwok) ((Aimee.Donnellan@thomsonreuters.com; Reuters Messaging: Aimee.Donnellan.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))


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