Britain’s roadmap for easing lockdown could be delayed by a fortnight with cabinet ministers increasingly pessimistic after a “downbeat” briefing from Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance.
The delay would enable all over-50s to be fully vaccinated and leave sufficient time for jabs to take effect before restrictions are lifted.
Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, and Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, yesterday gave a briefing to ministers on the latest data that was described as “fairly grim”.
They emphasised concerns about the rate of transmission of new strains of coronavirus, such as the Indian variant, and that vaccinations did not provide 100 per cent protection. Millions of Britons remain unvaccinated.
One cabinet source said they expected a delay of “between two weeks and a month” but suggested that the political fallout was likely to be limited as long as the full reopening took place before the start of the school summer holidays late next month. Another said that a delay made more sense than a partial lifting of lockdown restrictions to avoid any “confusion” in messaging.
The prime minister’s spokesman said that while there was “nothing in the data” to suggest that restrictions could not be eased on June 21, the government would look closely at case numbers and hospitalisations. Johnson is expected to make a formal announcement on Monday, when the government’s social distancing review will be published.
On June 21 the government hopes to end social distancing, meaning that venues such as pubs and restaurants would no longer have to enforce the one metre-plus rule. The rule of six for indoor gatherings would be lifted, and nightclubs would be allowed to return. The 30-person limit on events including weddings would be lifted, as would the rules on wearing face coverings and the guidance on working from home.
Of the 12,383 cases of the Indian variant that have been identified, 126 have led to hospital admissions. Eighty-three of the patients had not been vaccinated at all, 28 had received one dose and three had received both doses.
The UK recorded 5,683 coronavirus cases yesterday, up 68 per cent in a week, and one death related to Covid.
Ministers believe that the easing of restrictions may need to be delayed to ensure that all over-50s are protected. A cabinet source said that Whitty and Vallance had expressed reservations about the timetable. “They emphasised again that the vaccine did not provide 100 per cent protection and there were real concerns about the transmissibility of the new variants,” the source said.
“I think you’re looking at a delay of between two weeks and a month. As long as we have fully opened things up by the school holidays then I don’t think the political damage will be too great.”
Another cabinet source described the mood in Whitehall as “downbeat”. “We always said it was June 21 at the earliest. We may need another few weeks to let the effects of vaccination take hold. Doing a partial reopening would create confusion. People have planned on the basis of a full reopening. It’s important that the messaging is consistent.”
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said that it was too early to say whether lockdown restrictions would return, but added: “One day soon freedom will return.”
The Indian variant is thought to be 40 per cent more transmissible than the variant identified in Kent. Previous modelling has suggested that this could mean a bigger peak in cases than was recorded in January if restrictions end as planned.
Hancock said: “We must proceed safely and not see this go backwards. When the prime minister set out the roadmap he said he wanted it to be ‘cautious and irreversible’. So far, we have succeeded in making it irreversible, and I hope we can keep it that way.”
He confirmed that over-25s in England would be invited to receive jabs from today as the Indian variant “made the race between the virus and this vaccination effort tighter”. Downing Street said that data emerging over the coming week would be “crucial” in deciding whether England’s restrictions could be lifted on June 21.
The prime minister’s spokesman said: “There is nothing in the data to suggest Step Four can’t go ahead at the earliest date. But we do need to look very closely at the data over this coming week, which will be crucial, particularly on hospitalisations and whether or not the excellent vaccine rollout programme has sufficiently severed that link between the increase in cases, which we always expected to happen, particularly after Step Three, and that subsequently leading to hospitalisations and deaths.”