Boris Johnson will today urge Britons to be patient as he announces that the relaxation of Covid restrictions will be pushed back until next month.
The Prime Minister is expected to confirm that the June 21 Freedom Day will be pushed back to July 19 in ‘one last heave’ following a sharp rise in cases of the Indian variant.
Ignoring a mounting revolt by Tory MPs and dire warnings from the hospitality and theatre industries, Mr Johnson will argue that scrapping all restrictions now is likely to fuel the surge – and the public needs to be ‘patient’ so the country does not go into reverse.
The PM will use a Downing Street press conference tonight to outline a delay in the relaxation of restrictions in an attempt to push forward with the vaccination effort.
A government source told The Times Mr Johnson considers it the ‘final stretch’ to extend the protection of the jabs as far as possible before normality can return.
But he is expected to lift the limit of 30 people for weddings and permit more outdoor seated spaces at sporting events.
Mr Johnson, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and Health Secretary Matt Hancock signed off on the four week delay, reports say.
A senior UK government source told The Telegraph the message had always been ‘cautious but irreversible’, adding: ‘That has been our mantra throughout and that continues.
‘It would be far worse to have uncertainty and go backwards. It is better to be cautious and have certainty. It is one last heave. It is a straight race between the vaccine and the virus.’
Boris Johnson is tonight set to delay Freedom Day by a month – to the fury of business leaders and Tory MPs
Ministers were told that the four-week delay would likely prevent thousands of hospital admissions amid the rising Delta (Indian) variant – which is of particular concern to health officials over fears it partially evades vaccines.
A surge in the next few weeks would damage the NHS, as emergency departments have warned they are struggling with significant demand at the moment, The Guardian reports.
Honorary consultant in acute medicine at the Oxford University hospitals trust, Dr Raghib Ali, said: ‘In terms of emergency admissions, last month was the busiest since the start of the pandemic, we are much busier now in emergency departments than at the peaks of either the first or second wave.
‘In other parts of the hospital we are catching up with a lot of elective work because of the backlog, so for both of those reasons it’s a very bad time to have additional pressure from Covid.’
The PM has previously said that the end of restrictions must be ‘irreversible’.
One government source said restrictions could no longer be justified once over-50s had been vaccinated, adding: ‘The Prime Minister sees this as the final stretch and wants people to be patient. We are nearly there, it’s one last haul.’
Yesterday, millions of Britons put aside fears of a delay and headed out to cheer on the England football team during their Euro 2020 win over Croatia. On one of the hottest days of the year, beaches and parks were packed.
A Whitehall source said last night the Prime Minister was ‘determined’ to present a new exit plan ‘so this doesn’t just drag on’.
This is likely to involve a fresh drive to accelerate the rate of second jabs, which are seen as vital to halting the spread of the new variant.
The source said: ‘It may be better to pause things rather than risk getting into a position where if things get prickly we have to go into reverse. But the PM is very clear that it cannot be indefinite.’
The Prime Minister is expected to confirm that the June 21 Freedom Day will be pushed back to July 19 following a sharp rise in cases of the Indian variant. Pictured: The beach in Bournemouth was packed on Sunday
Thousands of football fans piled into venues in London and elsewhere around the country this afternoon to watch England kick off their Euro 2020 campaign with a victory against Croatia at Wembley stadium
It comes after Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said at the weekend that he could not give an ‘absolute guarantee’ that social distancing measures would be lifted by the end of August – prompting fears restrictions could roll on into the autumn.
In other developments last night:
- It emerged that ministers will lift the cap on the number of people who can attend weddings from 30, but scientists were warning against scrapping the cap completely;
- Rebel Tories warned they would vote against the extension of measures such as the Rule of Six, which are due to expire this month – but conceded they did not have the numbers to defeat the Government;
- Treasury sources said there were no plans to tweak the furlough scheme, despite the fact employers will have to start making bigger contributions next month;
- Latest figures revealed that Covid infections are averaging more than 7,000 a day – up by 50 per cent in a week, although hospitalisations and deaths remain low;
- Andrew Lloyd Webber said a delay to the exit roadmap risked bankrupting the entire arts industry;
- Ministers are expected to open the door to the use of so-called ‘Covid passports’ for big events, but will not make them compulsory.
Mr Johnson is facing a MPs’ revolt over the move to delay the final step of his lockdown-easing roadmap.
Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, said a delay to Freedom Day would be ‘devastating for business confidence, people’s livelihoods and wellbeing’.
It comes after Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said at the weekend that he could not give an ‘absolute guarantee’ that social distancing measures would be lifted by the end of August – prompting fears restrictions could roll on into the autumn
Unvaccinated British travellers to Ireland facing longer quarantine
Unvaccinated holidaymakers travelling from the UK to Ireland may face a longer self-quarantine period, it was reported last night.
It comes as the Irish department of health confirmed a further 315 new cases of Covid-19, with 22 patients in intensive care.
It is considering a longer self-isolation period for non-vaccinated UK passengers, following fears of the Indian variant spreading in the republic.
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said there would be ‘some changes [to rules on quarantine and travel] to reflect the concern and the danger that the variant represents’. Currently, anyone arriving from Britain must quarantine from home for five days if they get a second negative PCR test.
Mr Coveney told RTE’s This Week: ‘We want to try to get the balance right between protecting the Common Travel Area with the UK as best we can, because it is very important, and the very real and strong public health evidence.’
The Indian variant is now the dominant strain in Britain – accounting for 90 per cent of cases – and it is being closely monitored by Public Health England.
He added: ‘Delaying June 21 will send a clear message to employers and workers that when Covid cases increase this (and every) autumn and winter, they cannot rely on the Government to keep our society open.
‘It would be catastrophic for many businesses currently on life support.’
Douglas McWilliams, of the Centre for Economics and Business Research, said the delay was ‘a kick in the teeth’ for sectors such as hospitality.
He said firms had spent ‘hundreds of millions of pounds’ preparing for the relaxation of social distancing rules.
Mr Johnson spent last night thrashing out details of the new exit plan at a crunch meeting with senior ministers and advisers.
He was joined by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, chief medical officer Chris Whitty, and chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance.
Whitehall sources said the PM had been persuaded by scientists to sanction a delay.
Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of a sub-group of the Government’s expert Sage committee, said Britain was facing a ‘substantial third wave’ of infections.
Asked whether the next round of reopening should go ahead, he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: ‘If you are driving down a road and coming to a bend, and you’re not quite sure what’s round that bend, you don’t put your foot on the accelerator.’
Scientists fear that although two doses of Covid vaccine provide good defence against the Indian variant, one gives only limited protection.
The Government’s target for giving all adults their first dose is not until the end of July, with second doses being given eight to 12 weeks later.
Mr Johnson refused to say what proportion of the public will have to be fully vaccinated before a full reopening can go ahead, although sources suggested he will set out more detail tonight.