Watch: PM delays end of Covid restrictions by up to four weeks over Delta variant fears
Boris Johnson has delayed the end of England’s coronavirus restrictions by up to four weeks after being warned the move could lead to thousands of deaths and unbearable pressure on the NHS.
The Prime Minister announced the setback to the final phase of his plan to end the lockdown on Monday due to concerns over the rapidly spreading Delta variant first identified in India.
Experts feared going ahead with Step 4 on June 21 as planned could lead to hospital admissions on the scale of the first wave of Covid-19, heaping unsustainable pressure on the health service.
To avert this, Mr Johnson said during a Downing Street press conference that it is “sensible to wait just a little longer” as he put back the end of all legal limits on social contact to July 19, saying he is “confident” no further delay will be necessary.
He hopes deaths will be significantly reduced by that point because two-thirds of adults will have then been offered both vaccine doses due to the delay being coupled with a reduction in the time between jabs for the over-40s.
Limits on numbers for sports events, pubs and cinemas will therefore remain in place, nightclubs will stay shuttered and people will be asked to continue working from home where possible.
Mr Johnson left open the option of ending restrictions on July 5 if the data proves drastically better than expected, but conceded “let’s be realistic, probably more likely four weeks”.
He did, however, announce a limited easing of restrictions to take place from June 21 as he faces the prospect of a rebellion from Conservative MPs who are furious about the delay.
Watch: 30-person limit on weddings in England will be lifted from June 21
The 30-person cap for wedding ceremonies and receptions, as well as wakes, will be lifted – with limits to be set by venues based on social distancing requirements.
Fans were expected to be able to attend the Euro 2020 semi-finals and final at Wembley as the pilots on attendance of large events continue.
Care home residents will be permitted to stay overnight with friends and family from Monday without needing to quarantine for 14 days on return to their residences.
The target of offering all adults at least one jab was also brought forward to July 19, while over 23s will be invited to book their jabs from Tuesday.
Addressing the nation, Mr Johnson said: “It’s unmistakably clear that vaccines are working and the sheer scale of the vaccine roll-out has made our position incomparably better than in previous waves.
“But now is the time to ease off the accelerator because by being cautious now we have the chance in the next four weeks to save many thousands of lives by vaccinating millions more people.”
Mr Johnson felt he had to delay the relaxation after at least one of his four tests to easing restrictions – that the risks are not fundamentally changed by new variants – had been failed.
Watch: There is always the possibility of a new variant derailing the process, says PM
Officials also called into question the test to ensure infection rates do not lead to a surge in hospital admissions that could put unsustainable pressure on the NHS.
Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said the health service could “run into trouble” if the number of people being admitted to hospital with Covid continues on an “exponential path”.
But he 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” as well as knock-on effects.
Modelling by the Government’s Spi-M group suggested there was a possibility of hospital admissions reaching the heights of the first peak in March 2020 if the relaxation went ahead on Monday.
Experts believe the Delta variant is driving a rapid accelerations in cases, estimating it is between 40% and 80% more transmissible than the Alpha variant first found in Kent.
Ministers were expected to hold a vote over the extension in Parliament after a debate on Wednesday, where Mr Johnson will hope the limited relaxations he has approved will reduce the scale of the rebellion on the Tory backbenches.
But he was unable to offer MPs – and the public – a guarantee that July 19 would not be put back.
Instead he warned he could not rule out “the possibility that there is some new variant that is far more dangerous, that kills people in a way that we currently cannot foresee or understand”.
But the regulations will almost certainly be approved by the Commons after Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the party would support extending the restrictions.
The set-back of the delay was in part counteracted by new data from Public Health England showing vaccines are “highly effective” in preventing hospital admission from the Delta variant.
The research suggests that both the Pfizer and Oxford jabs are just as effective at combatting admissions from the new strain, particularly so after two doses.
Protection against death was also expected to be high but further work was underway to provide concrete evidence.
Labour accused the Government of “incompetence and indecision” as the opposition blamed the delay on border security.
Mr 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.”
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