Covid: PM insists July unlocking will go ahead in England

By Hazel Shearing
BBC News

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Waitress serving drinksImage source, Getty Images

The prime minister is determined the remaining coronavirus restrictions in England will be lifted on 19 July, No 10 says, despite concern that a rise in deaths could force a change of plan.

Boris Johnson said the measures must remain in place until then because of the rapid spread of the Delta variant.

All adults will be able to book a jab by the end of the week, NHS chiefs say.

But some Tory MPs fear a further delay to lockdown easing amid warnings of a return to hundreds of deaths a day.

A further 10 deaths within 28 days of a positive test were reported in the UK on Tuesday, and 7,673 more cases.

Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said the health service would "finish the job" of the vaccination programme to the "greatest extent possible" over the next four weeks.

He said he expected that all those over the age of 18 would be able to book "by the end of this week", and that the NHS aimed to offer second doses to two thirds of adults by 19 July.

So far, nearly 42 million people in the UK have received their first dose, and just over 30 million have had their second.

In Scotland, the easing of restrictions is likely to be pushed back by three weeks so more people can be vaccinated against the virus, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Tuesday.

All of Scotland had been due to move to the lowest level zero of its five-tier system from 28 June. This new date will bring Scotland into line with England.

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On Monday, Mr Johnson announced a four-week delay to the planned easing of lockdown restrictions in England on 21 June, after scientific advisers warned of a "significant resurgence" in people needing hospital treatment if it went ahead.

He said 19 July would be the "terminus date" for the remaining restrictions on social contact, and the delay would allow more people to get vaccinated.

A few restrictions are being lifted on 21 June, including the limit on wedding guest numbers.

And 15 coronavirus pilot events will continue as planned, including some upcoming Euro 2020 games, Wimbledon and arts and music performances. Attendees will have to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test.

The announcement that the vaccine rollout would be accelerated came as Prof Graham Medley, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the numbers of people dying from coronavirus would rise.

"The question is really as to what level they will rise," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"It is possible we could end up with a situation whereby the numbers of people going to hospital really mean that the government have to take some kind of action that they don't want to."

But he added that the government has had to do this throughout the pandemic.

Prof Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said the delay was "extremely welcome" and he hoped it would be "enough".

He told BBC Breakfast there was "very promising evidence" that the vaccination rollout meant there were fewer serious cases of coronavirus, and that getting more people vaccinated would allow England to "get ahead of this current wave".

Media caption,
Michael Gove says that the increased level of vaccination should allow further relaxation of restrictions on 19 July

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said he shared the prime minister's confidence about the 19 July end date.

"One can never predict the future with perfect confidence," he told BBC Breakfast.

"But insofar as we can be confident about anything in this complex world, we can be confident that the increased level of vaccination that we will have by 19 July should allow us to further relax restrictions."

However, Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, said "we could have moved ahead perfectly safely" without the delay.

He told LBC radio that the prime minister's comments about 19 July were "exactly the same words as he was using about 21 June".

"So some of us, I'm afraid, are a bit worried that we're not going to actually move forward on 19 July," he said.

Labour, meanwhile, has accused the government of incompetence over its handling of Covid variants, saying lax border policies led to the Delta variant entering the country.

"Rather than red-listing this variant, we essentially gave it the red carpet treatment as 20,000 people were allowed to arrive from India over a number of weeks in April, even though the warning signs were there," shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said.

"That essentially seeded this Delta variant across the country."

The confidence among ministers that all remaining restrictions will lift on 19 July is understandable given the extent of the vaccine rollout.

But behind the scenes, the one fear is what to do if cases are still rising at that point.

Infections are currently climbing sharply and modellers believe this could lead to more than 1,000 hospital admissions a day later in the summer.

That is equivalent to what the NHS would face for all types of respiratory illness in the middle of a bad winter.

The hope is that in a couple of weeks infection levels will have started to flatten, and maybe even fall, as the virus hits the wall of immunity built up by the vaccination programme.

But there are no guarantees of that.

Knowing the peak of this wave is still to come will make the final decision harder if hospitalisations climb as expected.

But the fact remains Covid is always going to present a risk. Exactly how much is hard to quantify at this stage, although it will of course be much much lower than it was before.

In the end it will come down to balancing that extra risk against the need to get back our old way of life and reducing the harms caused by our response to Covid.

The extension of restrictions will be put to a Commons vote, which could trigger a sizeable Conservative backbench rebellion, with a debate expected on Wednesday.

New analysis by Public Health England showed two doses of either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine were highly effective at preventing hospital admissions from the Delta variant.

PHE said the effectiveness was comparable to against the Alpha variant which was previously dominant in the UK.

Mr Johnson said the gap between doses for over-40s in England would be reduced from 12 to eight weeks.

And the target to offer all adults a first dose will be brought forward to 19 July.

Hospitality, wedding and night-time entertainment businesses are among those to have criticised the delay.

The government has said it will not extend the furlough scheme or other financial support further, despite the delay to the unlocking roadmap.

Downing Street said local authorities have £1bn of unspent money to support businesses, which could be used to pay business rates or contribute to furlough payments.

Under the furlough scheme, the government covers up to 80% of an employee's salary for the hours they cannot work because of the pandemic.

The scheme is due to run until the end of September but employers will have to help cover the cost from July.

Plans for easing coronavirus restrictions differ in all four UK nations. Limits on indoor gatherings in Northern Ireland are scheduled to be relaxed on 21 June and the rules in Wales will be reviewed on 25 June.

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