Ministers are considering delaying the end of coronavirus restrictions for a month to give businesses “certainty” and allow more time for people to receive two vaccinations.
Plans are being discussed for either a two-week or a four-week delay to the final easing of restrictions on June 21, if the Indian variant of the coronavirus continues to lead to a significant rise in infections and hospital admissions.
The variant now accounts for nine in ten cases and health leaders called yesterday for delay to prevent hospitals filling up with unvaccinated patients.
Ministers are concerned that a two-week delay would not give businesses the certainty they need because it might have to be extended. They said a four-week delay would ensure that more people in their forties have received two jabs and that the vaccinations have had time to take effect. “This is about giving people certainty,” the source said. “The worst-case scenario is that we ease restrictions and then have to implement them again. This has to be a one-way ticket.”
Some scientific advisers believe a month-long delay that pushes the end of restrictions into the school holidays will allow vaccination to catch up with the faster-spreading strain.
However, another cabinet source said that they believed a two-week delay would be sufficient. “By June 21 everyone over 50 who wants a second jab should have had one,” the source said. “You just have to wait another couple of weeks so that they all have full antibody protection. At that point you really have protected the vulnerable.
“Of course there are businesses that want us to stick with June 21 but when Rishi [Sunak, the chancellor] is letting it be known he’d be happy with a delay you know the argument is already over.”
They said there was a possibility that restrictions could be lifted on June 21 although this is seen as increasingly unlikely. Boris Johnson is expected to wait until Sunday to examine the latest figures before making his decision.
“A proper reopening is still in play but seen as unlikely,” a government source said. “Senior people are making the case for that. The argument is that we are going to have new variants all of the time and we have to learn to live with them.”
The prime minister is expected to reject a “mix and match” approach to the easing of lockdown restrictions amid concerns that it would confuse the government’s messaging. If there is a delay in lifting restrictions weddings will be exempted, however. The 30-person limit on wedding ceremonies and receptions and christenings will end regardless on June 21. Wembley could also be allowed to hold 40,000 fans for the knock-out stages of the European Championships.
A delay to the end of the lockdown restrictions is likely to cast doubt on the timeline for the large-scale return of international travel. At present, there are no popular destinations on the government’s green list.
Health chiefs broke cover yesterday to ask for a delay to the end of restrictions, with Danny Mortimer, deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation, saying: “The government must now be ready to push back the 21 June deadline for easing restrictions further, to help abate rising infections, ease pressure on the NHS and keep the public safe.”
Jim McManus, of the Association of Directors of Public Health, said that “patience now will pay off in the long run”, arguing that a delay “will help to prevent a further uptick in cases — particularly in areas experiencing high or enduring transmission — and allow time for more people to be vaccinated and protected against the Delta variant”.
Yesterday a further 7,393 cases were reported across Britain, with the rolling average up 63 per cent week on week. There were a further 147 hospital admissions in England, with the average up 50 per cent in three weeks.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said yesterday that the Delta variant that originated in India accounted for 91 per cent of all cases in England. But he refused to be drawn on whether the end of restrictions on June 21 would go ahead, saying “the most important fact” to establish was how vaccines have changed the link between cases and deaths.
Figures published yesterday show that the virus is spreading much faster in the unvaccinated younger groups, with infection rates in people in their twenties 18 times higher than those in their eighties. People aged 20-29 have rates of 121 per 100,000, four times higher than three weeks ago, according to Public Health England, while the increase is much slower in older age groups who have been vaccinated.
The Covid-19 symptom study at King’s College London estimates that the daily risk of catching the disease is one in 22,455 for the fully vaccinated, but rises to one in 7,901 for those who have had a single dose and one in 2,908 for the unvaccinated. Tim Spector, who leads the project, said: “The race is on to fully vaccinate the whole population to save lives and return to normal life.”