Ministers are considering pushing back the final step of easing lockdown restrictions by two weeks, it has been reported.
Experts have urged the Government to consider delaying ‘Freedom Day’ on June 21 amid concerns over rising cases of the highly transmissible Delta – or Indian – variant.
The health secretary yesterday confirmed the Government is ‘absolutely open’ to pushing back the unlocking if necessary – despite the prime minister last week saying he ‘still sees nothing in the data’ to suggest a delay.
Step four of the Government’s road map out of lockdown would see all legal limits on social contact removed, with nightclubs allowed to reopen, while restrictions on performances, weddings and mass events would also be lifted.
However, according to The Telegraph, rules around social distancing, the use of face masks, and guidance on working from home are unlikely to be lifted as planned on June 21.
Ministers, experts and civil servants are understood to be currently pouring over a number of proposals, with a two-week delay until July 5 under discussion.
Insiders said the decision will be based on data showing the impact of the Delta variant on hospitalisations, which have largely remained steady and flat, but Public Health England suggested there could be an increased risk linked to the strain.
A source told the paper: ‘The scientists are more in favour of a two-week extension and that is certainly one of the options that has been put in the papers for ministers.’
The health secretary said the Government is ‘not saying no to June 21’ but that the spread of the Delta variant had made the decision of whether to go ahead with the final step of easing restrictions more difficult.
Pressed on whether the date could be postponed if the data ‘gets bad’, he told the BBC Andrew Marr show yesterday: ‘We are absolutely open to doing that if that’s what needs to happen.
‘We said in the roadmap that June 21 is the date by which we would not take Step 4 before that date and that we would look at the data.
‘That is exactly what we are doing, so the roadmap was set up in order to be able to take these sort of changes into account.’
The B.1.617.2 Delta variant is now believed to be the dominant one in the UK, having overtaken the Kent strain, with cases spiking nearly 80% in just a week.
PHE said the latest figures suggest there could be an increased risk of hospitalisation with infections caused by the Delta variant – but that further data is ‘needed to have more confidence in that finding’.
There were 278 people who tested positive for the strain attending hospital emergency departments last week – up from 201 the week before – with 94 patients staying overnight – an increase from 43 on the previous seven days.
The majority of people hospitalised had not received a vaccine.
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