The government has delayed the end of England’s coronavirus restrictions by four weeks, until 19 July.
Boris Johnson said the new “terminus date”, which is due to see the removal of all legal limits on social contact, had been set after warnings that ending the lockdown on 19 June could lead to thousands of deaths.
The main cause of the delay is the spread of the Delta variant, which was first identified in India and has now become England’s dominant strain. It is believed to be between 40% and 80% more transmissible than the previous notable variant, which was discovered in Kent.
There are around 8,000 new cases a day, the highest since February, with infections increasing every week by around 45%.
And while the vaccine programme continues to be deployed successfully, the prime minister clearly felt it could not press on.
On Tuesday, ministers said they wanted this to be the final delay. Cabinet office minister Michael Gove insisted something “unprecedented and remarkable” would have to happen for the 19 July date to be extended further, adding the pushback was “regrettable”.
Monday’s announcement was described as a “devastating blow” for the night-time industry, while hospitality businesses will also see trading impacted by continued social distancing.
The removal of restrictions on 19 July would mean no rules on how many people you could invite into your home, while pubs, restaurants and cinemas would no longer need capacity limits.
Experts feared going ahead with Step 4 of the government’s roadmap on 21 June could lead to hospital admissions on the scale of the first COVID-19 wave, heaping unsustainable pressure on the health service.
To avert this, Johnson said during a Downing Street press conference that it is “sensible to wait just a little longer”.
He said he was “confident” no further delay will be necessary but was unable to rule that out, warning of the possibility that an unforeseen and “far more dangerous” variant could emerge.
He hopes deaths will be significantly reduced by 19 July because it is expected two-thirds of adults will have been offered both vaccine doses by then due to the delay being coupled with a reduction in the time between jabs for the over-40s.
The Labour Party accused the government of “incompetence and indecision” and blamed the delay on border security.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “The only reason this delay is being introduced is because the Conservatives failed to secure the country’s borders and a new variant from overseas was allowed to take hold, and failed to put in measures like proper sick pay support and surge vaccinations when needed.”
Johnson did announce the 30-person cap for wedding ceremonies and receptions, as well as wakes, will be lifted on 21 June – with limits to be set by venues based on social distancing requirements.
The Wimbledon tennis finals will be contested in front of capacity crowds and Wembley will be allowed to host 40,000 fans for its final four Euro 2020 fixtures as the pilots on attendance of large events continue.
England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said a four-week delay “will reduce significantly the risk of a very high peak which could cause significant problems in terms of pressure on the NHS”.
The extension of restrictions is expected be voted on in the House of Commons on Wednesday, with Johnson facing a potential rebellion from anti-lockdown Tory MPs.
Watch: Boris Johnson delays end of COVID restrictions by four weeks