Boris Johnson said on Wednesday he remained upbeat about easing remaining coronavirus lockdown measures in England on June 21st, but ministers are discussing a fall-back plan of delaying the easing by two weeks if data shows a surge in hospitalisations and deaths.
Senior members of Mr Johnson’s government said they expected the prime minister to hold to the June 21st date unless the data presents a compelling case for a delay. “He’ll move heaven and earth for June 21st,” said one senior minister.
Mr Johnson’s hopes of easing all restrictions this month have been derailed by the rapid spread of the Delta variant of Sars-Cov-2 first identified in India. The government has accelerated its vaccine programme and introduced surge testing to parts of England where the variant has been reported to try and suppress its spread.
On Wednesday, the government said three-quarters of all UK adults had now received one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine while half had received two jabs. One individual close to the programme said the internal aim was now to deliver two jabs to all adults over 50 ahead of the final easing.
Mr Johnson said it was too soon to commit to easing restrictions, but nothing had currently changed in the data to delay his plans. “I can see nothing in the data at the moment that means we can’t go ahead with step four, or the opening-up on June 21st, but we’ve got to be so cautious.”
‘Elderly and vulnerable’
He added: “What we need to work out is to what extent the vaccination programme has protected enough of us, particularly the elderly and vulnerable, against a new surge, and there I’m afraid the data is still ambiguous.”
Mr Johnson acknowledged that “people want a clear answer” about the final stage of easing but said “we’ve just got to wait a little bit longer”. The prime minister will make a final decision on June 14th about whether lockdown restrictions in England will be fully lifted.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was similarly equivocal about whether the June 21st reopening would go ahead. “There is nothing in the data to suggest we are definitively off-track but it is too early to make the decision about June 21st,” he said.
One individual close to the vaccination programme said they were hopeful that the easing could still go ahead. “We are in a different place than in January on deaths, thanks to vaccines. The next two weeks will be crucial.”
But if the data suggests that a delay is required, ministers said that one option being considered would be to delay the reopening date by a maximum of two weeks to July 5th to allow a further push on vaccinations.
‘Extra two weeks’
Chancellor Rishi Sunak has indicated to colleagues he would be relaxed over such a delay if it was justified by the data and to ensure that hospitals were not put under undue pressure.
One ministerial aide said: “No one wants this to go on longer than necessary. But there’s a sense that everyone could live with an extra two weeks if it keeps the new strain under control.”
Ministers expect that all adults in the most vulnerable groups will have been offered two jabs before June 21st. That would then allow health officials to undertake a major effort to vaccinate people in their 40s and 30s, who might still require hospital treatment despite not becoming critically ill.
Meanwhile, government insiders said plans for vaccine passports for domestic activities such as going to sports events or pubs have been dropped, although they are still likely to be introduced this summer to facilitate international travel.
One senior Whitehall official said: “It’s looking pretty much dead in the water as it will be a lot of hassle for a short period of time” for domestic activities. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021