Boris Johnson has rebuffed calls from businesses for additional financial support despite announcing a four week delay to the final easing of England’s lockdown restrictions.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference, the UK prime minister said “now is the time to ease off the accelerator” and said that a cautious approach could “save many thousands of lives by vaccinating millions more people”.
The move to “step four” of the government’s easing plan was delayed due to the rapid spread of the Delta variant of coronavirus first identified in India. Nightclubs will remain closed, along with the work from home order, and limits will remain on indoor socialising for another four weeks.
Over the next month, the NHS intends to offer two doses of Covid-19 vaccinations to two-thirds of England’s adult population, including all over 40s. All adults will be offered one jab before the easing.
Although Johnson described July 19, when all restrictions are now due to end, as a “terminus date”, he did not rule out a further delay if data suggests the health service risks being overwhelmed.
“I am confident that we will not need more than four weeks and won’t need to go beyond July 19. It is unmistakably clear that the vaccines are working and the sheer scale of the rollout has made our position incomparably better than in previous ways,” he said.
On Monday, 7,742 further cases of coronavirus were reported and three further deaths. The prime minister said that intensive care cases were rising and Covid-19 infections were growing at 64 per cent across the country week on week.
Some senior ministers expressed their private unhappiness with the delay, while a significant number of backbench Conservative MPs could rebel against the latest delay, citing the success of the UK’s rapid vaccination programme.
Businesses warned over a “devastating” impact from the extension without further government support, although the Johnson government has already spent £407bn on supporting business through the crisis.
The Federation of Small Businesses had called on ministers to delay the tapering of the furlough scheme — which provides 80 per cent of usual salary. It has also urged the government to write off bounce back loans for businesses still shut and extend full business rates relief for businesses in retail, hospitality and leisure.
“Business have spent thousands on ordering food and drink, selling tickets and marketing events in preparation for this date, while restaurants and bars have been banking on opening up fully to start recouping over a year of lost revenue,” said Craig Beaumont, chief of external affairs at FSB.
The hospitality leaders said that a month’s delay would cost the sector £3bn in lost sales. UKHospitality, the industry trade body, said that “any further delay” would put 300,000 jobs at risk.
Johnson ruled out any change in the furlough scheme or business support. “We always made sure that the furlough scheme would continue until September to take account of the whole spread of the road map. The chancellor has always been very clear about that,” he said. “On the basis of what we can see now in the data, on the basis of vaccine effectiveness, we don’t think we’ll need to change that.”
Many companies are now having to rethink their plans to let workers return to offices after the government said that it would continue to ask people to work from home where possible.
KPMG said that a “four-day fortnight” hybrid working plan was due to start from 21 June, but that any postponement “will be reflected in our approach, and we’ll commence with our plans when it’s deemed safe to do so”.
The Treasury is resisting pressure to introduce new business support to help companies hit by the new delay. The government announced in the spring it would not withdraw the furlough scheme in its entirety until the end of September.
One senior government figure said that this was still generous compared with other countries including France, where companies now have to pay 25 per cent of the wages of those receiving state support.
The official added that the government had introduced a £2bn scheme specifically for councils to distribute funds to companies in hard-pressed sectors that were still struggling — and half of this has not yet been spent.
The UK is still considering a partial extension of the rent moratorium this week, which would provide the retail and hospitality sectors some help given landlords are owed as much as £6bn in rent from tenants that were shut during the pandemic.
The prime minister did, however, make some concessions. The cap on those attending weddings will be lifted from June 21 both indoors and outdoors but social distancing will be required, along with masks and no dance floors.
Medical and scientific advisers believe that the Delta strain is between 40 and 80 per cent more transmissible than the previously dominant Alpha variant first identified in Kent. The new Delta variant is growing at 70 per cent week-on-week across the UK.
But new data from Public Health England highlighted the effectiveness of the two vaccines currently in use in the UK against the Delta variant. The analysis suggested that the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine is 96 per cent effective against hospitalisation, while the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is 92 per cent effective.
Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at PHE, confirmed the jabs offered “significant protection” from the Delta strain. “It is absolutely vital to get both doses as soon as they are offered to you, to gain maximum protection against all existing and emerging variants,” she said.
Johnson was admonished by the Sir Lindsay Hoyle, speaker of the House of Commons, for his failure to announce the changes to parliament first, accusing the government of acting misleadingly.
“I find it totally unacceptable that once again, once again, we see Downing Street running roughshod over members of parliament,” he said.