British prime minister Boris Johnson on Saturday expressed "serious concern" about rising infections of the Covid-19 Delta variant, reinforcing suggestions that he is set to delay lifting England's last remaining lockdown curbs.
Mr Johnson is due to announce on Monday whether the planned lifting of restrictions, which would see an end to limits on social contact, could go ahead on June 21st as set out under a planned “roadmap”.
The British government had hoped that the success of one of the world’s fastest rollouts of the vaccines would end the limits on indoor gatherings and the requirement of pubs and restaurants to provide only table service.
But the rapid spread of the Delta variant, first discovered in India, has thrown those plans into jeopardy. A four-week delay would push back the easing of restrictions to July 19th.
Although Mr Johnson said officials would continue to study the data before making a final decision, he was less optimistic about the situation than he was at the end of May.
“It’s clear that the Indian variant is more transmissible and it’s also true that the cases are going up, and that the levels of hospitalisation are going up,” Mr Johnson told Sky News.
“Now, we don’t know exactly to what extent that is going to feed through into extra mortality, but clearly it’s a matter of serious, serious concern.”
Any delay to Mr Johnson’s unlocking roadmap risks triggering a row with some politicians in his Conservative Party, who have opposed keeping the restrictions in place.
Karan Bilimoria, president of the Confederation of British Industry, said companies understood the need to tread cautiously in a health crisis, but many firms in sectors such as hospitality were barely breaking under the current rules.
“If there’s a full delay for two to four weeks, then it’s got to be irreversible: we cannot have stop-start and as long as that is clarified we will have to cope with this delay,” he said.
Mr Johnson attempted to add some optimism by suggesting the government would not reimpose any already-eased restrictions, such as the ban on households mixing indoors or the closure of hospitality venues.
The government has always said decisions at each stage of unlocking depend on the available data.
Britain on Saturday reported 7,738 new Covid-19 cases, down slightly from a day earlier, when they were at their highest since February.
Asked whether he was less optimistic about the easing of lockdown than at the end of May, the prime minister said: “Yes, that’s certainly fair.”
Any decision Mr Johnson makes only applies to England, because the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland make most public health decisions in their regions.
There is a huge risk that prematurely relaxing all restrictions will undo the excellent work of the vaccine programme and lead to a surge of infections
Mr Johnson has said that an increase in cases was always expected after the most recent stage of lockdown easing in May, but the key to whether all coronavirus restrictions can be scrapped will be the extent to which Britain’s vaccine rollout has broken the link between cases and deaths.
Britain’s total Covid-19 death toll stands at more than 127,000, but the number of daily deaths has fallen following a third national lockdown and a rapid vaccine rollout. More than three-quarters of adults have received at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine.
Doctors in the British Medical Association (BMA) joined calls on Friday for the final lifting to be put on hold to enable millions more to gain the protection of the vaccine.
BMA council chairman Chaand Nagpaul said: "With only 54.2 per cent of the adult population currently fully vaccinated and many younger people not yet eligible, there is a huge risk that prematurely relaxing all restrictions will undo the excellent work of the vaccine programme and lead to a surge of infections.
“It’s not just about the number of hospitalisations, but also the risk to the health of large numbers of younger people, who can suffer long-term symptoms affecting their lives and ability to work.”
For Labour, shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the country was now paying the price for the refusal of ministers to heed the warnings of its own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).
“Any delay in rolling back restrictions would be a huge blow for many families and businesses across the country. The fault for this lies squarely with Conservative ministers,” he said.
“Despite warnings from Labour, Sage and others they continued with a reckless border policy that allowed the Delta variant to reach the UK and spread.
“Now the British people look set to have to pay the price.”
Scientists now estimate that 96 per cent of all new cases of coronavirus are attributed to the Delta variant.
The latest figures from Public Health England (PHE) showed there have been 42,323 cases of the Delta variant confirmed in the UK, up by 29,892 from the previous week.
It estimates the strain is 60 per cent more transmissible compared with the previously dominant Alpha, or Kent, variant, and that cases are doubling every four and a half days in some parts of England. – Reuters/PA