Ministers on Friday insisted England can still exit the final stage of lockdown on June 21 in spite of a rise in Covid-19 cases, as the spectre of coronavirus overwhelming the country’s hospitals receded.
Kwasi Kwarteng, business secretary, said there was nothing in current data to suggest final lockdown restrictions could not be lifted on June 21 as planned, adding: “I don’t think we will move the date.”
Boris Johnson is expected to take final decisions by June 14 and is waiting to assess new data, notably about the fast spreading B.1.617.2 variant first identified in India, but one government official said: “It’s looking good. We can’t say for sure yet but there’s certainly no sense of panic.”
Ministers are hoping to provide an update on recent data by the middle of next week. The prime minister’s allies said data on the transmissibility of the B.1.617.2 variant was key.
The information will have a bearing on new advice on social distancing — including the “one metre plus” rule, the wearing of masks and guidelines to work from home — being drawn up by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove.
Cases of the B.1.617.2 variant are mainly focused in hotspots such as Bolton, Blackburn with Darwen, and Bedford, although most parts of the country now have small numbers of cases, said Public Health England. It may be expanding at the expense of the so-called Kent variant, B.1.1.7.
But there is evidence that Covid-19 vaccinations are breaking the link between the disease and hospitalisations.
According to a PHE analysis, a total of 5,599 people contracted the B.1.617.2 variant between February 1 and May 25, of which 3,367 had not been vaccinated and just 177 had received two doses.
Of the 177, five people sought help at accident and emergency, with one person being admitted to hospital and two dying. Overall, 201 people were ill enough to go to A&E, with 43 admitted to hospital.
Ministers are urging people to come forward for their second jab when called. Johnson has spoken of “a race” between the vaccine and the virus, and recent PHE data suggest two doses provides reasonable protection against the B.1.617.2 variant.
Currently, 46.5 per cent of the UK’s adults have had their second dose, close to 24.5m people, but the prospect of hospital intensive care units being deluged is fading.
At a large London teaching hospital, just three Covid-19 patients are being treated, none of whom require critical care, said one person briefed on the situation.
Dr Alison Pittard, dean of the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine, the professional body, said: “I think this time round it is intensive care that will have the lowest number of Covid patients.
“Even if the vaccines don’t stop you getting one of the variants it’s more likely to stop you becoming critically unwell and dying, but the rest of the hospital may still be busy.”
Ministers have pushed back into June final decisions on the next move out of lockdown in England.
June 21 is the earliest date for step four of the government’s lockdown-easing road map, when all legal limits on social contact could be lifted and the last remaining businesses and events can open.
Johnson has left open the possibility that a full reopening may not be possible if the Covid-19 data deteriorates and ministers expect some restrictions — for example the wearing of masks on public transport — could continue.
The prime minister is caught in a vice between advocates of sticking to the lockdown-easing timetable and others — including scientists — who want restrictions to remain in place for longer.
Mark Harper, chair of the Covid Recovery Group of Conservative MPs who are sceptical about restrictions, said: “The evidence shows that our vaccines are very effective against the B.1.617.2 variant. This should mean restrictions will be removed from June 21.” The Daily Mail’s front page headline on Friday begged: “Don’t steal our summer.”
But Danny Mortimer, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents healthcare organisations, said: “I think we still have to be open to the possibility that the prime minister won’t be able to stick with the June 21 date because the increase in infections will keep on going up and the vaccination programme won’t be able initially to keep pace with what we’ve seen happening with the variant.”
One member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, who declined to be named, said: “I think there is still quite a lot of risk in the system and further opening up will simply add to this risk.”
Business leaders have raised concerns about the damage caused by the uncertainty over whether hundreds of businesses can reopen and events go ahead from June 21.
Johnson said at the start of the month that he would make an announcement by this week on whether large weddings would be able to go ahead from the third week of June — so that businesses would have 28 days notice.
But such announcements have been delayed, with large events, nightclubs and other businesses that still need to be closed now asking for guidance about whether they will be able to reopen on June 21.
Any delay to the lifting of restrictions next month will mean the government must extend its Covid-19 financial help for companies, according to business chiefs.
“A delay will take it to 18 months of being closed for some businesses,” said Craig Beaumont of the Federation of Small Businesses.
Meanwhile, Mike Tildesley, an academic at the University of Warwick and a government adviser on pandemic modelling, said it was “inevitable” that cases will rise as lockdown restrictions are eased and the B.1.617.2 variant spreads.
“The key question is whether we will see a similar rise in hospitalisations,” he added. “Unless we see really concerning evidence about the Indian variant, I wouldn’t suggest we’d see anything like the waves we’ve already seen.”
Or as one ally of Johnson put it on Friday: “It could be OK or it could not be OK. By the middle of next week things may be a little bit clearer.”