June 21 freedom date is on a knife edge: Ministers are split over whether to impose last-minute delay to the end of Covid lockdown as evidence mounts on vaccine effect
- Downing St sources promise ‘finely balanced’ decision on June 21 by this week
- Despite vaccine success, some ministers are spooked by new surge in cases
- Matt Hancock and Michael Gove are said to be urging the PM to exercise caution
- While Rishi Sunak and Grant Shapps are warning of the impact on the economy
Calls to delay ‘freedom day’ marking the end of lockdown have split the Cabinet as evidence mounts that Covid jabs are keeping Britons out of hospital.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock yesterday told MPs that just three fully vaccinated people have been admitted to hospital because of the Indian variant.
He pledged that freedoms would be restored ‘soon’, but stressed it was ‘too early’ to assess if the end of lockdown will go ahead as planned on June 21.
He did not deny that ministers are considering a devastating delay to the opening up of the economy.
Despite vaccine success, some ministers and officials have been spooked by a surge in Covid cases – up by more than 50 per cent in the last week.
Despite vaccine success, some ministers and officials have been spooked by a surge in Covid cases – up by more than 50 per cent in the last week. Pictured: Boris Johnson receives his jab
The debate has split the Cabinet, with Mr Hancock and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove urging caution
Whitehall sources said contingency plans are being drawn up for a possible ‘short’ delay to give scientists more time to consider data and allow the NHS to carry out more vaccinations.
The debate has split the Cabinet, with Mr Hancock and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove urging caution, while others, including Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, are warning Boris Johnson he must consider the impact on the economy of extending restrictions into the summer.
One Cabinet source said: ‘The evidence is clear that vaccinations are severing the link between infections and hospitalisations.
‘Most of the cases now are among teenagers, who are not going to get seriously ill. The health lobby will always want more data but we have enough now to get on with it.’ But another insider said: ‘No decisions have been taken but it is looking pretty challenging to go ahead on June 21. I think people are leaning towards a short delay.
‘It would be a nightmare for the sectors affected, but – having said it is all about data not dates – it is difficult to go ahead with a reopening when the data is pointing the wrong way.’
The Prime Minister is due to announce next Monday if the Government will press ahead with the fourth and final step in the roadmap out of lockdown.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is warning Boris Johnson he must consider the impact on the economy of extending restrictions into the summer
This would scrap the one-metre social distancing rule and lift caps on the number of people who can meet indoors or outdoors.
Ministers are also set to rule on whether mask wearing should continue and if formal advice to work from home should end.
Downing Street sources said the ‘finely balanced’ decision would be taken at the end of this week.
Business leaders and Tory MPs warned last night that any delay from June 21 would be devastating and could see thousands of pubs and restaurants go to the wall.
Ministers fear a delay could also wreck summer plans, with thousands of weddings cancelled, theatre openings put back and key events like the Wimbledon tennis tournament and music festivals facing crowd restrictions.
The row comes as people aged 25 to 30 will be offered their first jab from today as ministers try to step up the vaccination programme.
Business leaders Tory MPs warned any delay from June 21 would be devastating and could see thousands of pubs and restaurants go to the wall. Pictured: Transport Secretary Grant Shapps
In other developments, official figures showed just one Covid-related death in the UK recorded yesterday and Mr Hancock all but ruled out the introduction of Covid passports for domestic use, noting that they have already been dropped in Israel, which pioneered them.
British tourists yesterday scrambled to leave Portugal ahead of its move to the travel amber list this morning while the UK’s daily Covid cases rose to 5,683, with nearly three-quarters of local areas recording week-on-week increases – the highest proportion since January 6.
Mr Hancock yesterday told MPs the Indian or Delta variant was now thought to be at least 40 per cent more transmissible than the Kent or Alpha variant.
He said it now accounted for the ‘vast majority’ of new cases, but evidence from Bolton suggested vaccines were working.
Of the 12,383 UK cases of the Indian variant, 126 have been admitted to hospital. Of these, just three had been fully vaccinated.
Microbiologist Professor Ravi Gupta, who sits on a sub-group of the Sage committee, said ‘a few more weeks rather than months’ may be needed before a full exit from lockdown.
Former chief scientist Professor David King also called for a delay, saying there was ‘evidence of another wave appearing’.
But former health minister Steve Brine warned there was a growing perception that ministers were ‘writing Covid a blank cheque and just continually delaying’.
Kate Nicholls, of industry group UK Hospitality, said a delay to the unlocking would result in ‘business failures and insolvencies very quickly’.
She warned: ‘You are going to have long Covid for the economy if you are not very careful.’
The PM’s spokesman said data on hospital cases over the next few days would be ‘crucial’ to the final decision.
Ministers have considered a compromise plan, which would see some restrictions lifted on June 21 while others remain in place.
But multiple sources said the Government was more likely to delay the whole package than try to split it up.
The devastating cost of diverting from the roadmap
Analysis by Mario Ledwith
When it was unveiled in February, the PM’s roadmap out of lockdown promised to ‘restore freedoms sustainably, equitably and as quickly as possible’.
Announcing the plan, Boris Johnson said: ‘We cannot persist indefinitely with restrictions that debilitate our economy, our physical and mental wellbeing, and the life-chances of our children.’
The roadmap set out a plan to end legal limits on social contact by June 21.
The ultimate decision will be based on four tests, including the success of the vaccine rollout, current pressure on the NHS and the risk posed by new variants.
As ministers inch closer to making the call on whether to stick to the roadmap, we look at what rules could finally be lifted – and the impact if they are not.
Only last week, Mr Johnson said there was a ‘good chance’ the Government could ditch its ‘one-metre plus’ social distancing guidance.
If the advice remains in place, there will still be significant impacts on everyday life.
If the ‘one-metre rule’ advice remains in place, there will still be significant impacts on everyday life
The advice would make it difficult for the Government to overturn its guidance that everyone who can work from home must do so, while posing a further obstacle to the retail and hospitality sectors.
It could also prevent an end to enforced table service at pubs and bars. Kate Nicholls, of UK Hospitality, said lifting the one-metre rule is ‘vital’ for firms to operate viably.
LIMITS ON WEDDINGS
Failure to lift restrictions will mean that those getting married will have to keep the number of attendees at the current limit of 30.
Couples risk losing tens of thousands of pounds, while businesses already on the brink have warned that failure to allow big ceremonies to go ahead will be disastrous.
Couples risk losing tens of thousands of pounds, while businesses already on the brink have warned that failure to allow big ceremonies to go ahead will be disastrous
Industry body the UK Weddings Taskforce warned the wedding sector faces estimated revenue losses of more than £1.3billion.
RULE OF SIX (INSIDE)
Continuing to limit indoor gatherings to six people or two households would curtail sections of the hospitality sector reliant on large- scale events.
It would also prove an impediment to larger families who have spent months waiting for the opportunity to meet indoors, rather than in gardens.
Continuing to limit indoor gatherings to six people or two households would curtail sections of the hospitality sector reliant on large- scale events
Ministers have not dismissed the possibility of ditching the rule of six while keeping social distancing guidance in place, due to the higher risk of transmission inside.
UK Hospitality has predicted that a two-week delay to easing restrictions could cost the industry £1.5billion. Pub retailer Greene King has warned it would lose £1million during every England football game that takes place without the easing of the rules.
RULE OF 30 (OUTSIDE)
The hospitality sector is once again likely to bear the brunt of the refusal to scrap the 30-person cap on out- door gatherings.
The improving summer weather and lifting of restrictions was expected to coincide with a wave of large-scale gatherings that may now have to be cancelled.
Already on their knees after being hit hardest of all by Covid restrictions, an extended ban could be a fatal blow for the country’s nightclubs and indoor music venues.
A recent report found that clubs, which have been closed for 15 months, have already made 51 per cent of staff redundant.
The Night Time Industries Association, which represents nightclubs and other venues, has warned MPs that venues are facing an estimated £2.5billion rent crisis.
Failure to give the green light to capacity crowds could prove a hammer blow to the music festival sector, which is worth £1.1billion.
It is also likely to stand in the way of the UK’s summer of sport, with the European Football Championship the most high-profile victim.
Failure to give the green light to capacity crowds could prove a hammer blow to the music festival sector, which is worth £1.1billion. Pictured: Dua Lipa performs at the 2021 BRIT Awards
The tournament’s semi-finals and final are being played at Wembley and limits could dash hopes of seeing the stadium filled with cheering England fans.
Just 15 people out of 60,000 tested positive for Covid at nine trial events staged by the Government, including the FA Cup Final and Brit Awards last month.
At present, you can be fined up to £200 for failing to wear a mask in indoor areas such as shops or on public transport, unless they are exempt.
Last month, the Government dropped a requirement for schoolchildren to wear masks amid concerns they were affecting learning.
Ministers, including Health Secretary Matt Hancock, have said that restrictions over wearing masks could be kept after freedom day
But ministers, including Health Secretary Matt Hancock, have said that restrictions over wearing masks could be kept after freedom day.
Surveys have shown people are largely in favour of retaining indoor mask-wearing, while studies show they can be successful at reducing transmission when combined with other measures.
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