U.K. Covid deaths fall to zero, fueling demands to end lockdown
The U.K. recorded no new Covid-19 deaths for the first time since the global pandemic began, bolstering calls from industry groups for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to lift restrictions as planned this month.
Zero deaths have been reported in the past day, according to the latest statistics published on the government's coronavirus dashboard. That's the first time since March 7 last year that nobody has died in the U.K. from the disease.
The milestone will reinforce business calls for the government to push ahead with plans for its fourth and final stage of unlocking the economy on June 21 -- including an end to all social distancing guidelines -- even as rising cases of the virus raise concerns that the country may be facing another wave.
Johnson and his team have warned they will need to wait for more data on the spread of the variant first identified in India before announcing by June 14 whether the easing of restrictions can go ahead as proposed.
U.K. Hospitality, which represents about 85,000 venues, said jobs will be lost if there's a delay to the end of lockdown measures, while survey data from the Night Time Industries Association suggests the future of nine in 10 nightlife businesses is threatened after more than a year of enforced closures.
"It's devastating for the industry," NTIA Chief Executive Michael Kill said in an interview. "They feel like they've been forgotten. They're at the very sharp end of a long-running roadmap which they've watched unfold, to almost feel like they've been duped out of their opportunity at the last minute."
Johnson is facing the dilemma of whether to prioritize the economy and ease the rules to remove all social distancing restrictions and allow large events to be held, or to stay cautious and delay the final step out of lockdown amid a surge in cases.
Adding pressure on Johnson was the decision by Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to postpone a planned June 7 relaxation of the rules across a swathe of the region including Edinburgh because of an increase in the number of cases of the variant first detected in India.
Prevalence of this Delta strain is what could prevent England's plans for unlocking. It has spread across the U.K. and the number of daily Covid cases has ticked upwards in the past two weeks. That's raised concern of whether a second summer will be lost to the pandemic. The U.K. is also hosting the Group of Seven and climate summits this year.
Johnson's spokesman refused to be drawn on the government's thinking, saying only that it needed more time to assess the data. Asked if the government would copy Scotland's approach of having different restrictions in different places, Jamie Davies said the unlocking was a "national endeavor." That signals the government won't try to revive a system of regional tiers that failed to contain the pandemic last fall.
On May 17, indoor hospitality and entertainment sites, such as cinemas, theaters and museums re-opened -- yet with legal restrictions on capacity. Those limits mean it's been unprofitable for some businesses to return.
"A delay would push many businesses closer to the cliff-edge of failure, meaning more job losses," said Kate Nicholls, chief executive of U.K. Hospitality.
Businesses such as nightclubs are in an even more precarious position, because they've been shuttered throughout the crisis, unlike hospitality, which was able to reopen last summer. That makes the final stage of the government's plan for reopening even more crucial for them.
"It would be devastating to snuff this glimmer of hope out," said Craig Beaumont, head of external affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses. "The June cohort of businesses are those that have been closed throughout the crisis. They have no cash reserves and are excited to finally join other businesses."
Britain's biggest business lobby group, the Confederation of British Industry, said in a statement that all companies are looking to the government for "clear guidance on Covid-status certification and social distancing once the economy fully unlocks."
While the government has pledged to give an update on the roadmap a week before the planned reopening, Kill at the NTIA said that doesn't give businesses enough time to test their operations. He said 95% of businesses had already committed funds to the reopening, including stocking up, preparing venues and getting workers back.
Kill described the damage unleashed on the night-time economy as a "triple whammy."
"You've got the workforce that are concerned about whether they've got a stable job to return to; you've got landlords who are not convinced that our sector is something they want to rent or lease their properties to; and we've had challenges around investment," he said. "That tide needs to change."