Good morning. Britain has today reached what is probably the most important milestone in the easing of lockdown restrictions, with indoor hospitality back open and a wide range of restrictions being lifted in England, Scotland and Wales. (There are differences in each country, of course; the BBC has a good nation-by-nation guide here.) A week ago Boris Johnson adopted an upbeat tone as he confirmed that today’s opening up would go ahead. But within the last seven days new evidence about the spread of the variant originally from India, B.1.617.2, has triggered considerable concern, and in a statement issued overnight Johnson said that people should take this next step “with a heavy dose of caution”.
Together we have reached another milestone in our roadmap out of lockdown, but we must take this next step with a heavy dose of caution.
We are keeping the spread of the variant first identified in India under close observation and taking swift action where infection rates are rising.
The current data does not indicate unsustainable pressure on the NHS and our extraordinary vaccination programme will accelerate – with second doses being bought forward to give the most vulnerable maximum protection.
But now everyone must play their part – by getting tested twice a week, coming forward for your vaccine when called and remembering hands, face, space and fresh air.
I urge everyone to be cautious and take responsibility when enjoying new freedoms today in order to keep the virus at bay.
Given that Johnson has been widely criticised for repeatedly failing to take decisions that might have saved more lives, some may feel that he not the best person to champion the benefits of acting “with a heavy dose of caution”. But his language has been heavily influenced by the advice he is getting from Sage, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. On Friday it released this paper (pdf) saying that B.1.617.2 may be 50% more transmissible than B.1.1.7, the so-called Kent variant, which is now the dominant one in the UK, and that if this is the case, the consequences could be severe. It said:
SPI-M-O [the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, Operational sub-group] is confident that B.1.617.2 is more transmissible than B.1.1.7, and it is a realistic possibility that this new variant of concern could be 50% more transmissible. If B.1.617.2 does have such a large transmission advantage, it is a realistic possibility that progressing with all roadmap steps would lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations.
It will take a few weeks until it is clear whether or not B.1.617.2 is 50% more transmissible. Until then there will be a lot of nervousness about opening up, as well as uncertainty about whether step 4, the lifting of all legal restrictions in England planned for 21 June, will be able to go ahead.
Here is the agenda for the day.
9.30am: The ONS publishes a report on working from home.
11am: Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, gives evidence to the Lords constitution committee about the cabinet manual.
12pm: Downing Street is due to hold its lobby briefing.
2.30pm: Lord Frost, the Brexit minister, gives evidence to the European scrutiny committee, about the Northern Ireland protocol.
Politics Live has been a mix of Covid and non-Covid recently. Today I will be focusing mostly on coronavirus, although I plan to cover the non-Covid committee hearings that look interesting. For more Covid coverage, do read our global live blog.
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