The planned scrapping of remaining restrictions in England on 21 June has been thrown into doubt with reports that the government is looking at contingency plans including a two-week delay to allow more adults to be fully vaccinated.
The Telegraph and the Financial Times reported on Saturday that civil servants were drawing up contingency plans to delay the easing lockdown restrictions by two weeks, possibly to 5 July.
A senior Whitehall source told the FT: “A variety of options are being drawn up, including a delay to step 4 and trading off some measures against others.”
According to the Telegraph, a two-week delay to the final stage of Boris Johnson’s roadmap will be accompanied by bringing forward the second doses of vaccination for over-40s.
Prof Stephen Reicher, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours, which advises the government, told the Press Association it would be “foolish” and a “major risk” to end restrictions this month.
“I think by the government’s own criteria it’s quite clear that it would be foolish to proceed on the data that we’ve got at the moment,” he said. “The risk would be very great indeed. Again, I make the point that it is about data not dates, and if you make it too much about the dates then you box yourself into a corner and I think that’s what the government has done.”
Office for National Statistics data on Friday suggested infection levels in England had risen by about 75% in a week, with 85,600 people thought to have had Covid in the week ending 29 May – or one in 640 people – compared with 48,500 the week before.
On Friday, the UK also recorded its highest number of new confirmed coronavirus cases in a single day since late March, at 6,238. The estimated R number for England is now 1.0 to 1.2, up from 1.0 to 1.1 last week.
But Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, raised hopes that the situation in hospitals was not as critical as in previous waves of the pandemic. He said the number of people in hospital with the Delta variant, first detected in India, was not increasing “very significantly”.
He told BBC Breakfast that many of those in hospital in Bolton, which has the highest number of cases of the Delta variant in England, were younger people and “a lot less at risk of very serious complication, less at risk of death, and what that means is that they were less demand on critical care.”
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said on Friday it was too early to say what the decision would be regarding 21 June, “but we’ll make sure people know in good time”. He said the government “always expected cases to rise” as lockdown was eased, and ministers were being “tough” on international travel rules to preserve the route out of lockdown in the UK by preventing new variants from taking hold.
The government angered the travel industry and Tory backbenchers when it decided to remove Portugal from the green list of restriction-free travel destinations.
Tim Alderslade, the chief executive of Airlines UK, the industry body that represents UK carriers, complained about a lack of transparency and consistency over the changes, which meant British tourists in Portugal were scrambling to get home in time to avoid quarantining for 10 days.
“It has caused complete pandemonium because we don’t have that watchlist that we were promised by the government,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
A government spokesperson said no decision had been made on whether to ease all coronavirus restrictions on 21 June.
“As the prime minister has set out, we can see nothing in the data at the moment to suggest that we need to deviate from the roadmap,” she said. “We continue to look at the data and the latest scientific evidence and no decision on step 4 has yet been made.”