Boris Johnson is examining a "mix-and-match" approach to easing lockdown restrictions in England on June 21st, following a surge in cases of the Delta variant of coronavirus.
On Wednesday, another 7,540 cases of Covid-19 were reported, a week-on-week increase of two-thirds and the highest level since February, along with six further deaths. The NHS is braced for a rise in hospital admissions in the coming month.
The UK prime minister said the government needed to assess whether “the vaccine rollout . . . has built up enough protection in the population in order to go ahead to the next stage” of easing restrictions. Mr Johnson will make his final decision on Monday.
A senior government official said that fears about the new variant meant a “mix-and-match approach is probably on the cards, given the limited number of levers left”.
One cabinet minister said officials were “trying to find a solution that pleases the PM’s instincts” to reopen society, noting that allowing a tweak to regulations to allow larger weddings to go ahead would be “easy”, though nightclubs were not expected to open “for a while”.
Another senior government official closely involved with the process confirmed a hybrid approach was being considered but said it would be “very complicated” to implement. “What would you choose? Deciding the public health benefits would be difficult,” they said.
Neil Ferguson, a leading government scientific adviser, warned that the Delta variant first identified in India could lead to "a fairly disastrous third wave" of hospitalisations comparable to winter.
Prof Ferguson said the latest modelling data, to be presented to the government’s Sage committee on Thursday, showed “a risk of a substantial third wave”.
“We cannot be definitive about the scale of that – it could be substantially lower than the second wave or it could be of the same order of magnitude,” he added.
He predicted the death rate in any wave would be reduced by the protection provided by vaccines. He said a delay to the next stage of easing lockdown would “make a difference” to the spread of infections as it would “[allow] more people to get second doses” and buy scientists time “to gather more data” about the new variant.
The Johnson government risks another rebellion from Conservative MPs if it delays the June 21st easing as virtual parliamentary sittings will need to be extended.
During the pandemic, hybrid arrangements have restricted the number of MPs in the House of Commons, introduced proxy voting and allowed virtual participation via Zoom. All these arrangements will automatically cease on June 21st.
If the government wishes to extend the arrangements, it will need to hold a vote, an opportunity for disgruntled MPs to voice concerns and attempt to inflict a defeat on the government.
One parliamentary official said, “delaying June 21 is going to be very difficult because either the government will need a vote to continue the virtual parliament or they will have to go against public health advice”.
Steve Baker, deputy chair of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs that is sceptical of lockdowns, said “the law clearly states that all legal restrictions will be revoked at the end of the month” for parliament.
“Even if social restrictions are not lifted . . . it will cease to be the law by the end of June, allowing businesses to flourish once again, weddings to take place, our economy to recover,” he said.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Commons’ speaker, said: “I want to get the House back to normal and allow people back on to the parliamentary estate – but only if it is safe to do so and via a phased and managed return.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021