Boris Johnson on Monday will approve a delay to the final easing of England’s lockdown restrictions on June 21, with the postponement kept to two weeks if the vaccination and infection data prove better than expected.
The UK prime minister will meet Cabinet ministers to sign off on what officials expect to be a four-week delay to the final relaxation of coronavirus curbs, due to the rapid spread of the Delta variant of coronavirus that was first identified in India.
A further 7,490 people tested positive for coronavirus across the UK on Sunday — an increase of 2,149 compared with a week ago — with another eight deaths recorded, up from four over the same period. About 62 per cent of the UK population have now received one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine and 45 per cent are double jabbed.
One senior government official said the proposal Johnson would consider was for a postponement of the June 21 easing to July 19 to give “extra time to get more second doses” administered. The plan also included the option of moving the easing back by two weeks, ending on July 5, “if the data improves substantially”, the person said.
Government insiders are convinced that Johnson will order some kind of delay. “If you look at the new Public Health England stats, it looks like there will be a delay,” said one.
Downing Street said that no formal decisions had been made. But foreign secretary Dominic Raab all but confirmed that the easing of restrictions would not take place, stating that the government did not want to “yo-yo back in and out of measures”.
He told the BBC: “The key point is we want to move out of lockdown irreversibly. I think the vast majority of people in the country, but also parliament, will understand that.”
Raab added that the “critical thing” was to ensure as much of the adult population was double vaccinated as quickly as possible to stop the spread of the new strain from overwhelming the health service.
“At that point, we can go irreversibly through the gears and open up in a way that we haven’t been able to do to date. The crucial overarching immediate objective is to get those second doses dispensed.”
About 2m people in England aged over 50 remain unvaccinated while almost 4m are still only partially protected, according to government data. The figures for those aged 18-49 are 13m and 21m respectively.
The crucial data for ministers is the link between vaccination and serious illness developing from coronavirus. Raab said: “We’re confident that we’ve weakened the link between transmission and hospitalisation for those that suffer the more serious end of Covid. What we’re not sure yet is whether we’ve broken or severed the link.”
But ministers are also likely to relax restrictions for weddings, mirroring the guidelines for funerals that allow indoor venues to operate within their “Covid-secure” capacity, which requires social distancing. Outdoor celebrations will have fewer restrictions.
Rishi Sunak, chancellor, has indicated he will not resist a delay in the reopening if the data supports that continued economic restrictions remain in place.
“That’s why the furlough scheme and other support is continuing until September,” said one ally of the chancellor. “Rishi is confident that support is in place for business, if there is a delay.”
Ministers and senior officials believe the June 21 easing will be delayed for two or four weeks. Those advising Johnson believe there will be minimal political impact from delaying the easing.
“The economic effects would be minor,” said Kallum Pickering, an economist at the investment bank Berenberg. “Any damage from a later easing after most restrictions have been lifted anyway could be offset afterwards by a confidence effect if vaccines prove to be the game-changer.” This overall effect, however, will mask significant costs for businesses that will be forced to remain closed, especially hospitality and entertainment that would normally expect to profit during Britain’s summer, and especially the European football championships. Pubs and events spaces can already open but must operate below their full capacity.