Covid: Lockdown easing in England to be delayed by four weeks

By Becky Morton & Joseph Lee
BBC News

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People walking past Covid-19 warning sign in Marble Arch, LondonImage source, Getty Images

Most coronavirus rules will remain in place in England for another four weeks after the planned 21 June unlocking, government sources have told the BBC.

Senior ministers have signed off on the decision to delay the lifting of all legal restrictions on social contact.

That could mean capacity limits for sports, pubs and cinemas will remain, and nightclubs would stay closed.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to confirm the delay at a news conference later - at 18:00 BST.

The extension will be put to a Commons vote this month and could trigger a sizeable Conservative backbench rebellion.

England was due to move to stage four of the government's roadmap out of lockdown on 21 June, when venues and events would be allowed to operate without capacity limits and the cap on guests at weddings would be lifted.

It would also have meant an end to current rules which limit gatherings at home to six people or two households.

But many scientists have called for the reopening to be delayed to enable more people to be vaccinated and receive second doses, amid rising cases of the Delta variant, which was first identified in India.

A delay would also allow more work to be done on whether vaccines are breaking, or simply weakening, the link between infections and hospitalisations.

Health Minister Edward Argar told BBC Breakfast that he could not confirm the delay before the PM's announcement, but that there was a "concerning increase" in cases of the Delta variant and numbers in hospital were "beginning to creep up".

Most severe cases were among unvaccinated people or those who had only one dose, he said, adding that at current rates nearly 10 million second doses could be administered over four weeks to increase protection.

Mr Argar said the prime minister would address issues of economic support in any announcement and that the PM was "very sensitive" to the situation of couples who had already had to postpone their weddings.

All areas of Scotland are due to move to Level Zero Covid restrictions on 28 June - meaning bigger groups can gather in cafés, pubs and restaurants, although they will still have to observe social distancing.

Limits on indoor gatherings in Northern Ireland are scheduled to be relaxed on 21 June and the current rules in Wales will be reviewed on 25 June.

If the lifting of restrictions is pushed back, the UK Weddings Taskforce - an industry group - estimates that 50,000 weddings planned in the four weeks from 21 June could be cancelled, with the industry losing £325m for every week of delay.

Currently the number of guests allowed at weddings is limited to 30.

The Night Time Industries Association said businesses such as nightclubs had already spent millions preparing to reopen, and the association would legally challenge any delay to reopening.

Will Power, owner of the Lab 11 nightclub in Birmingham, said a delay would be "catastrophic".

"This will possibly hurt us more than the initial lockdown back in March last year," he said.

Kate Nicholls from UKHospitality, which represents pubs, bars and restaurants, said businesses faced losing £3bn in sales if the relaxation of restrictions was delayed by a month.

Singer Frank Turner, who has raised money for struggling small music venues, said the delay would "tip some businesses into final collapse", while theatre producer Sonia Friedman warned "many livelihoods are under existential threat".

Media caption,
"The crucial thing that we set out in the four tests that we set at the outset.... is the link between transmission of the virus" - Dominic Raab

Rising infections in the UK are being driven by the Delta variant which is believed to be around 60% more infectious than the previous dominant variant and twice as likely to result in hospital admissions.

On Monday, the UK recorded 7,742 new cases of Covid-19 and three deaths within 28 days of a positive test.

The seven-day average for cases in the UK is up 46% compared with the seven days before.

However, NHS England data shows over-55s are continuing to account for a smaller percentage of people admitted to hospital with Covid-19.

On 6 June around a third of admissions were aged 55 or over, compared to a little over 70% on 6 March, and more than 80% on 6 December.

Meanwhile, the government has announced extra support for six more areas of England, to help suppress the spread of the Delta variant.

Additional testing, tracing, isolation support and measures to maximise vaccine uptake will be deployed in Birmingham, Blackpool, Cheshire East, Cheshire West and Chester, Liverpool City Region and Warrington.

Guidance will also be set out for the six areas on steps people can take to keep their communities safe, including minimising travel in and out of the area.

If it wasn't for the Delta variant, the government would in all likelihood be announcing the go-ahead for a full unlock.

But a more infectious variant against which one shot of the vaccine works less well has created a problem.

That much can be seen from how quickly infection levels are rising. The trajectory we are on means we could see January levels of infection by the end of July.

Exactly what that means for hospital admissions is less clear. It is already obvious that while the vaccines have weakened the link between cases and serious illness they have not broken it completely - admissions are rising after all.

Early data suggests less than 5% of cases are ending up in hospital - half the rate seen previously.

But that still has the potential to cause 2,000 admissions a day if we did reach January levels of infection - twice what the NHS would see for all respiratory illnesses in a bad winter.

None of that is guaranteed, of course, and so a delay, government scientists are arguing, gives them more time to work out with confidence where we are heading - and it is even possible the immunity built up by the vaccines will have started to halt the growth by then.

The government has set out four tests that must be met for the next stage of easing restrictions to go ahead:

  • The vaccine deployment programme continues successfully
  • Evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated
  • Infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS
  • Its assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new variants of concern

More than 41 million people in the UK have had a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, while nearly 30 million have had two doses.

Some Conservative MPs said they were concerned that vulnerable businesses would close permanently and that the prospect of ending all coronavirus restrictions was receding.

Backbencher Peter Bone said he would vote against continuing restrictions unless the prime minister was able to show there was "a very clear danger to our society".

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that currently he "can't see the evidence why we should be postponing our freedom".

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told LBC Radio if the lockdown decision was confirmed, it would be because of the government's "pathetic borders policy", which he said allowed the Delta variant to become established in the UK.