Boris Johnson is set to delay the lifting of remaining coronavirus restrictions in England for a month after his chief medical adviser pressed him to postpone the move following a surge in Covid-19 cases.
The restrictions are meant to be removed on June 21, but Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, has sought a four-week delay. The prime minister is due to make an announcement on Monday.
The expected delay to lifting restrictions comes as the NHS races to vaccinate more adults amid a sharp rise in Covid-19 infections and hospitalisations across the UK due to the coronavirus variant named Delta. Almost 15m adults in England remain unvaccinated, including 2m people aged over 50, according to Financial Times analysis.
Nine in every 10 new Covid-19 cases are the Delta variant, according to a Public Health England report released on Friday.
PHE data also indicated Delta, first identified in India, is 64 per cent more transmissible than the previously dominant Alpha variant that originated in Kent.
Two senior Whitehall officials said Whitty advised Johnson this week to postpone what is meant to be the final stage of the government’s lockdown easing plan in England by four weeks and stressed that a shorter delay would be insufficient to control the spread of the virus.
Whitty told the prime minister a four-week delay was vital to avoid a situation in which restrictions are lifted prematurely, only to have to be restored later.
One ally of Johnson said: “Irreversibility is driving Boris’ thinking. He doesn’t want to have to ease restrictions now to bring them back later.”
Downing Street said “no decisions have been taken” about whether to lift restrictions on June 21. Johnson might relax guidance on the size of weddings on June 21, even if he retains other restrictions, according to government officials.
With two doses of a coronavirus vaccine showing good protection against infection from the Delta variant, the government is seeking to get more jabs into arms. Currently, 55.4 per cent of the adult population has had two doses.
Johnson was given data on Thursday that outlined the latest analysis of the Delta variant and its potential impact on the NHS. “It is now critical we double jab everyone as quickly as possible,” said one official.
One Cabinet Office insider said: “A delay [to lifting the final restrictions] is the only sensible course of action. It’s our working assumption. The latest modelling is dire and it would be suicide to go ahead with a full easing.”
The government’s medical advisers have modelled the impact of a four-week delay on vaccination levels, concluding that a smaller postponement would not make much difference.
But they believe four weeks would have a substantial impact by increasing the number of adults fully vaccinated with two doses, as well as giving more younger people at least some level of protection from a single jab.
“They can predict how many in different age groups will get vaccinated and the modelling shows that after four weeks it has a major impact on positive cases,” said one official, adding that it would allow the NHS to double-jab more over-40s as well as the most vulnerable.
The UK has recorded the highest weekly rate of Covid-19 cases since early March, with 45,895 new infections reported in the past seven days. This is a rise of 58 per cent on the previous week.
Office for National Statistics data showed the infection rate was highest in the north-west of England and among children of secondary school age.
Covid-19 hospitalisations have risen sharply since the Delta variant became dominant, with 884 beds occupied in England on Friday, up from a low of 730 on May 22. They have increased 9.8 per cent over the past week.
The link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths has not been broken by the vaccines, but data suggest it has weakened significantly.
More than half of the 42 people who have died after being infected with the Delta variant were unvaccinated, according to PHE.
With older people much less likely to be infected now due to vaccination than in the infection wave last autumn, the fatality rate is likely to be 75 per cent lower amid the latest surge in cases, according to Financial Times analysis.
Scientists, health leaders and economists backed the case for delaying the end of restrictions in England beyond June 21.
Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at Cambridge university and a member of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, said it was “a delicate time because the vaccination rollout hasn’t quite reached enough people and we’re at risk of losing some of the gains that we made”.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents health leaders across the country, said he believed the decision on whether to press ahead with the June 21 easing was “finely balanced . . . but given that trusts and frontline staff are now working flat out to tackle [non-Covid treatment] backlogs and deal with increased demand for emergency care, it only takes a small increase in Covid-19 cases to disrupt non-Covid care”.
Kallum Pickering, economist at Berenberg bank, said the economic effect of a delay in the easing of final restrictions would be minor.
“Any damage from a later easing after most restrictions have been lifted anyway could be offset afterwards by a confidence effect if vaccines prove to be the game-changer,” he added.