ondon minister Paul Scully has said he was “cautiously optimistic” that lockdown will fully end on June 21.
He stressed the vaccination programme was “going great guns” as Britain seeks to win a race to stop the spread of the Indian variant, leading to a major rise in hospitalisations.
Mr Scully struck a more upbeat note than many scientists urging the Government to delay the fourth stage of easing restrictions in three weeks’ time, which would see the end of social distancing.
Asked whether he expected the June 21 plan to go ahead, he told Times Radio: “I’m cautiously optimistic. We’ve got to get it absolutely right. People’s jobs and livelihoods depend on it, but we also are making sure that we are protecting lives.”
While Covid cases were rising, the small business minister added that hospitalisations “hopefully..won’t increase substantially”.
Crucially, the infection rate among Londoners aged 60 and over, who are largely vaccinated but without the jab would be more vulnerable to the disease, was only up slightly.
The data is evidence that the vaccines are working, although hospitalisations could rise if there is a surge in cases driven by the Indian variant, now also being called the Delta variant on the advice of the WHO.
Admissions tend to go up several weeks after increases in cases so MPs will be scrutinising data in coming days to see if there is any sign of a worrying increase in hospitalisations before making the crucial decision by June 14.
Health chiefs in Bolton, one of the worst Delta variant hotspots, have said that so far people being hospitalised are not as ill as during earlier waves and that numbers have stabilised.
Robert Dingwall, professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University, told Times Radio: “They’re people who need a bit of extra support with oxygen.
“They go in, stay in hospital for three or four days and they go out again. There is no realistic prospect of the NHS facing the sorts of pressures that it faced in January and February.” However, Professor Adam Finn, who heads the Bristol Children’s Vaccine Centre, was far more cautious about June 21 easing, telling LBC radio: “A more infectious virus, which is what it looks like we’ve got, will reach people who are vulnerable — those who did not make a good response to the vaccine.”
CBI president Lord Bilimoria, though, urged the Government not to delay given the success of the vaccine roll-out.
However, several areas of the North-West are seeing sharp rises in weekly cases, including Rossendale up 364 per cent.
Former chief scientific adviser to the Government Professor Sir Mark Walport stressed that the June 21 decision was “finely balanced”.
Ministers may decide to do a partial easing of the final stage of lockdown, for example ditching the rule of six indoors to fully re-open the hospitality sector but keeping some restrictions for night clubs and mass events.
Boroughs where surge testing has been deployed in response to a rise in cases of the Delta variant — including Hounslow, Hillingdon, Ealing, Brent and Harrow — are not seeing large rises in infections, according to the latest seven-day rates.
The rate for the capital rose to 25.3 confirmed infections per 100,000 Londoners in the week to May 26, up 23.1 per cent on the previous week.
The rate among Londoners aged 60 and over increased only slightly, to 8.8, compared with 28.5 for the 59 and younger age group.
The number of Covid patients in the capital’s hospitals was 234 as of May 28, almost the same as the 233 on May 22.