PM announces four-week delay to Covid lockdown easing in England
Boris Johnson has announced a four-week delay to the final lockdown easing and a speeding up of second vaccine doses, saying the extra time could prevent thousands of unnecessary deaths.
Johnson said the data was now clear that two doses of the vaccine were needed to combat the new Delta variant and it was right to allow more time to give millions more people second doses. “We have the chance – in the next four weeks – to save many thousands of lives by vaccinating millions more people,” he said.
Johnson cut the interval between the first and second jabs from 12 weeks to eight for the over-40s, a step that has already been taken for older adults.
He told a Downing Street press conference he had concluded it was “sensible to wait just a little longer” to lift all final restrictions. “I am confident we will not need any more than four weeks and we won’t need to go beyond 19 July,” he said.
“It is unmistakably clear the vaccines are working and the sheer scale of the vaccine rollout has made our position incomparably better than in previous waves.”
Hospitalisations could hit the peak of the first wave if step 4 of the roadmap proceeds, according to modelling by the government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) committee. The data presented to ministers suggested that because vaccine effectiveness increases significantly after two doses, thousands of deaths could be prevented by delay.
Prof Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said the link between cases and hospitalisations had been “substantially weakened” but not “completely stopped” by the vaccine rollout. He warned that given a 50% rise in hospitalisations in the last week, if the current trajectory continued and restrictions were loosened “then we would run into trouble” fairly quickly.
The move will delay the lifting of all remaining restrictions until Monday 19 July, and although the data will be reviewed after two weeks, No 10 said it was “unlikely” restrictions would change.
Johnson suggested the vaccination programme would reach a point after the next four weeks where the country could live with the risk of some of the virus in circulation. “We will be in a far stronger position to keep hospitalisations down, to live with this disease, and to complete our cautious but irreversible roadmap to freedom,” he said.
Weddings will be given a limited reprieve as many couples had faced the prospect of cancelling their nuptials for a second year running. The cap of 30 guests will now be lifted for weddings and other life events such as funeral wakes but venues must stick with social distancing requirements and table service. The advice will still prohibit singing and dancing.
The delay will mean most hospitality venues must continue to operate at reduced capacity and indoor gatherings remain limited to six people or two households. High-risk venues such as nightclubs must remain closed. No 10 said it would continue with its mass event pilots but stadiums will not be able to operate at full capacity.
The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has rejected business demands for an extension of the furlough scheme and business rates relief as sources close to him said he believed sufficient economic support measures were already in place to cope with a delay.
The scheme will force employers to contribute 10% of an employee’s wage from the start of July, rising to 20% in August, as taxpayer support is cut from the current level of 80%. Employees will continue to receive the same amount.
Hospitalisations have risen by 50% across England, while the north-west has seen a rise of 61%. The vast majority of patients – more than 70% – admitted to hospital are under 65, while the over-65s make up less than 30%.
This is a “complete reversal” of the picture during the first wave, Whitty said, pointing to the success of older people having had two vaccine doses in preventing hospitalisations.
The Delta variant discovered in India is also going “exponentially up”, Whitty said, adding that if cases were just comprised of the Alpha variant found in Kent, it would have been “very likely” ministers would have released more restrictions.
The delay of four weeks should mean all over-40s who received a first dose by mid-May will have been offered their second dose by the week commencing 19 July when the final restrictions lift and all over-18s will have been offered a first dose, meaning around two-thirds of adults will have been offered two doses, reducing the risk of hospitalisation.
The NHS will contact those whose second doses are affected and will offer a chance to rebook.
Downing Street also eased some restrictions on care homes, removing the requirement for residents to isolate for 14 days after visits out.
The prime minister, who met Sunak, Matt Hancock and Michael Gove on Sunday to agree the delay, judged that two of the four tests for easing restrictions had not been met – the tests that highlight the effects of new variants as well as increases in infection rates leading to possible hospitalisations and deaths.
Before the decision, Gove held a meeting of the first ministers in the devolved administrations and a cabinet call was convened. But the decision to announce the delay at a press conference provoked ire from the House of Commons Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who said he had had to intervene to force the government to make a statement in parliament on Monday.
He said the prime minister making such a significant announcement at a press conference instead of in the chamber was “totally unacceptable” and he had been “misled” into thinking no final decisions had yet been taken.
“Once again we see Downing Street running roughshod over MPs,” Hoyle complained. “We’re not accepting it, and I’m at the stage where I’m beginning to look for other avenues, if they’re not going to treat this house seriously. I think it’s time for me to have a meeting with the prime minister to actually put on the record, here, now, that this house matters.”
Tory MPs were also vocal in their criticism. Peter Bone said Johnson was probably in contempt of parliament, while Sir Edward Leigh said his behaviour had the hallmarks of a “presidential system”.
MPs are expected to vote on the change to the roadmap on Wednesday and Labour is expected to back the change, although there is likely to be a sizeable Conservative rebellion.