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Boris Johnson is facing a Conservative backbench rebellion as he prepares to announce a delay to the final lifting of coronavirus lockdown restrictions in England.
The Prime Minister is expected to announce that the road map easing earmarked for June 21 will be delayed for four weeks to July 19.
He will hold a Downing Street press conference at 6pm, accompanied by England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.
The announcement means that limits on numbers for sports events, pubs and cinemas are likely to remain in place, nightclubs will stay closed and people will be encouraged to keep up social distancing and working from home.
The move has been met with fury by some Tory MPs, with a vote this month expected to lead to a possible Conservative backbench rebellion.
Health minister Edward Argar said that if the June 21 lockdown easing was delayed for one month, another 10 million second coronavirus vaccine doses could be given across the UK.
He told Sky News that while the number of people in hospital has been “creeping up a bit”, vaccination meant “we are seeing that severing of the link between the disease and hospitalisations and death.”
Mr Argar added: “I think that on that basis, everyone will recognise that there comes a point where we do have to live with this disease and recognise that you cannot go for a zero Covid approach, you have to live with it, and vaccination is the key to that.
“So I think once we have got those second doses in people’s arms, once we have got that level of protection up to around that 81%, then I think people will be more comfortable with it.”
Conservative MP Peter Bone said a delay to the lifting of restrictions should not happen “without really good reason” and that currently he “can’t see the evidence why we should be postponing our freedom”.
He said there should only be restrictions “if there is a very clear danger to society”.
Asked if he would vote against a delay in Parliament, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “What I would do is listen to what the Prime Minister says, listen to the arguments, and if I’m not convinced that these restrictions are necessary then I would of course vote against it and I hope every member of the House of Commons will listen to the argument and make their minds up.”
It comes after scientists spent the weekend defending a delay, saying that the rapid spread of the Delta variant first identified in India risks a substantial third wave of infection.
Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, said that any delay to the plan for easing was “proportionate” to prevent further lockdowns.
She told LBC: “We need to buy some more time to have more people receive a vaccine.
“We’ve just got about half of people with a second dose and we know that in the face of this Delta variant, that second dose is really important to provide the protection that is needed to avoid more people going into hospital.”
She added: “If we can provide more protection to the population through vaccines, then it means that we won’t have to take a step back again… So this is why an additional four weeks, which is what we expect will be announced, I think is proportionate.”
Meanwhile, Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told the Today programme that experts were “still very worried about the small numbers percentage wise, but probably large numbers of people that are still unvaccinated in the higher risk groups”.
He added that the JCVI was “looking carefully at what the Scottish Government has done” with regards to urging over-40s to have their second dose at eight weeks, adding that “it seems to be a sensible strategy, and we will advise the Government accordingly”.
The move to delay lockdown comes as a huge setback to many businesses – particularly in the hospitality sector – which had pinned their hopes on a full summer reopening to recoup some of the losses of the past year.
Westminster City Council leader Rachael Robathan warned of the “devastating” effects on London’s West End if the end of lockdown is delayed.
“We are all braced for a delay today in the lifting of social distancing rules – while that will be extremely disappointing and devastating for some sectors, the Government’s priority has got to be to protect people’s health,” she said.
“But central London cannot afford any slippage in the fight to revive our economy.
“Footfall numbers are still down, office workers are staying away in significant numbers and central areas of the city are hurting.
“That makes the case for action now even more compelling.”
Anthony Costello, professor of global health and sustainable development at University College London, suggested that if the Test and Trace system had had an “army” of contact tracers then the Government would not be considering a delay to lockdown.
He told Sky News: “The question is, why are we in this position? The NHS has done a fantastic job on vaccines but why has there been such poor investment in public health infection control to supress these outbreaks?
“Patrick Vallance got it right in February when he said that as the numbers come down it is essential that we do find, test, trace and isolate.
“And our failure to do that three times in the past has led to three national lockdowns and 150,000 deaths.
“I’m quite angry about this. Where is the £38 billion going into Test and Trace for local public health? Why are the test results so slow? Why haven’t we got (an) adequate army of contact tracers? We’re in a war, we should have an army on the ground.”
Prof Costello added that there has been a “failure to invest in isolation”, adding: “I feel that, if we had the public health measures to complement the vaccination programme, we would be in a much safer place, we would have our economy able to open now and we wouldn’t have all of these pressures on livelihoods.”
Over the weekend, former minister Mark Harper, the chairman of the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) of Tory MPs, said any postponement would be a “political choice”.
He warned that if the unlocking did not go ahead as planned, restrictions could carry on through the autumn and into the winter as other respiratory infections picked up.
“Variants and mutations will appear for the rest of time,” he said.
“We have to learn to live with it.
“If our very effective vaccines cannot deliver us freedom from restrictions, then nothing ever will.”