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Boris Johnson Has Plans To Lift All COVID-19 Restrictions In England By Mid-July

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he expects to lift the vast majority of COVID-19 restrictions in England later this month, even as cases, hospitalizations and deaths are rising with the spread of the Delta variant. Johnson spoke to the country today on national TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: To those who say we should delay again, the alternative to that is to open up in winter, when the virus will have an advantage, or not at all this year.

CHANG: All right. For more, we turn now to our London correspondent, Frank Langfitt.

Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So why does Boris Johnson want to lift nearly all the coronavirus restrictions, especially as the virus is spreading again?

LANGFITT: Well, part of the answer, I think, is what you just heard - is his argument is, if not now in the - you know, in the summer, when? And clearly, part of this is an economic argument, and this is something that's guided the prime minister throughout the pandemic. Later on in the press conference, this is what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

JOHNSON: We have to balance the risks - the risks of the disease, which the vaccines have reduced but very far from eliminated, and the risks of continuing with legally enforced restrictions that inevitably take their toll on people's lives and livelihoods.

CHANG: OK. I get the balance of risks, but how is he balancing those risks when key indicators are heading in the wrong direction right now?

LANGFITT: Yeah. So this is his argument. He says, yes, cases are rising. And, in fact, they're averaging about 27,000 a day most recently, and they're going to double. They're doubling every nine days. But he and scientists are arguing that the U.K.'s heavy vaccination rate - half of the United Kingdom's population is already completely vaccinated - has largely, but they say not completely, broken the link between the disease and hospitalizations and deaths. And so here are some figures I think we're thinking about. Even with so many cases right now, only 1,900 people are in the hospital, compared to about 35,000 nationally in the winter. And deaths are averaging about 18 a day versus a peak - one day in January over 1,800 deaths.

CHANG: Wow. OK, so things are getting better, but what restrictions is Johnson actually lifting? Because the U.K. has gone through various lockdowns, I'm just curious what restrictions are still left in England.

LANGFITT: Yeah, there are not actually that many left. And I was downtown just a few days ago on Regent Street, and it was almost as crowded as usual in the summer. The only difference was half the people were wearing masks. Now, what Johnson says he's going to allow is all businesses to open. There'll be no limits on numbers in theaters and sporting events. And so, for instance, you know, the European Championship semifinals later this week in - at Wembley Stadium, it'll be 75% capacity, but that's still 60,000 people. So, I mean, things have been loosening a lot in recent months. And the most important thing that people are focusing on now is no mandatory requirement to wear a mask indoors.

And I've got to note one thing - is that this all applies to England. The prime minister's policies only affect England, which is far and away the largest country of the four nations inside the United Kingdom. And local leaders in Scotland, Wales and Ireland - they can make their own decisions about this.

CHANG: Right. OK, so what's been the reaction so far politically to Johnson's announcement that he intends to lift almost all these restrictions by the end of the month?

LANGFITT: Yeah, you're already hearing criticism, which I think is not surprising. Keir Starmer - he's the leader of the opposition Labour Party. He says he thinks Johnson is just doing this for headlines and going overboard in removing all the restrictions. And this is how Starmer put it today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEIR STARMER: Lifting all protections in one go when the infection rate is going up is reckless. A balanced approach - a proper plan - would say keep key protections. One of them would be masks in enclosed places and on public transport. That's a common-sense position.

LANGFITT: And another thing I should say, Ailsa, is that it's not sure this is a done deal. Johnson still seems to be hedging. He says he expects to do this, but he's not actually going to make a final decision until next Monday.

CHANG: That is NPR's Frank Langfitt in London.

Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.