The government is expected to announce whether or not all restrictions will be lifted in England by this date on Monday.
While ministers were previously hopeful of meeting the 21 June date, the now dominant Delta variant may mean a delay, as scientists warn that the UK could be facing a third wave of the virus.
A two-week delay until 5 July is reportedly under discussion, and Boris Johnson has recently sought to dampen hopes of a full reopening by 21 June, saying on Wednesday: “On Monday... we’ll have a look at where we are. I think what everybody can see very clearly is that cases are going up, and in some cases hospitalisations are going up.”
Postponing the final phase of England’s roadmap is likely to be met with fierce opposition from many Conservative backbenchers. On Thursday, former prime minister Theresa May attacked the government over restrictions on international travel, arguing that the UK will never be completely free from the coronavirus.
“We are falling behind the rest of Europe in our decisions to open up,” she told the Commons. “It’s incomprehensible that one of the most heavily vaccinated countries in the world is one that is most reluctant to give its citizens the freedoms those vaccinations should support.”
Last week, health secretary Matt Hancock acknowledged that there had been a “very significant” impact from the Delta variant, but said that it was too early to make a final decision on the 21 June opening.
He said that the government was “absolutely open” to delaying the unlocking “if that’s what needs to happen”.
He added that: “The roadmap has always been guided by the data and as before, we need four weeks between steps to see the latest data and a further week to guide our decision.
“So, we’ll assess the data and announce the outcome … on 14 June.”
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is also understood to be willing to accept a delay of up to four weeks to the final phase of England’s unlocking. Citing a Whitehall source, The Guardian revealed this week that Mr Sunak is more concerned about the lifting of restrictions being a permanent move than sticking to the 21 June date.
This week, ministers will receive the most up to date data from government officials and scientific advisers in order to make an informed decision ahead of next Monday’s anticipated announcement.
Last week, prime minister Boris Johnson said: “I don’t see anything currently in the data to suggest we have to deviate from the roadmap,” but added that “we may need to wait”.
If the final stage of unlocking is pushed back, it is likely that the delay would be a matter of weeks, rather than months. This time would allow more older adults to receive their second dose of the vaccine, offering greater protection against the virus and specifically the Delta variant.