Today’s big question

Will Boris Johnson end coronavirus restrictions in England on 21 June?

Chancellor Rishi Sunak ‘happy’ to delay ‘freedom day’ to give businesses greater ‘certainty’

A delay to the end of coronavirus restrictions looks increasingly likely as ministers consider plans to push back so-called “freedom day” by up to a month.

Concerns over the spread of the Delta variant mean that ministers are considering allowing more time for people to receive two vaccinations, as well as to give businesses more “certainty” in their plans to reopen, The Times reports.

A cabinet source told the paper that Chancellor Rishi Sunak is “happy” for there to be a delay, adding: “Of course there are businesses that want us to stick with June 21 but when Rishi is letting it be known he’d be happy with a delay you know the argument is already over”.

State of play

A delay to the ending of restrictions was thought to be a possibility after Johnson’s senior scientific advisers delivered a “downbeat” briefing to cabinet ministers earlier this week.

England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance gave a briefing on the latest infection numbers on Tuesday that was described by ministers as “fairly grim”, The Times reports, prompting one minister to say they expected a delay of “between two weeks and a month”.

At the time, Johnson’s spokesperson said that there was “nothing in the data” to suggest that restrictions could not be eased on 21 June.

The UK yesterday reported 7,393 new cases, meaning that 44,008 people have tested positive in the past week, a 63.2% increase on the previous week. There have been seven reported deaths within 28 days of a positive test, bringing the total in the last seven days to 55. The Delta variant now accounts for 91% of all cases in the UK.

Ministers were last week split over the unlocking, with Public Health England (PHE) throwing “a small grenade into the debate” when it published a report suggesting that the Delta variant, previously referred to as the Indian strain, could be twice as likely to lead to hospitalisation, Politico’s London Playbook reports.

Data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) today shows that England’s R rate has risen slightly to between 1.2 and 1.4, an increase from between 1 and 1.2 last week. The ONS figures also revealed that infections are rising across England by between 3% and 6% every day.

A cabinet source told The Times earlier this week that Whitty and Vallance “emphasised again that the vaccine did not provide 100% protection and there were real concerns about the transmissibility of the new variants”.

“I think you’re looking at a delay of between two weeks and a month,” the minister added. “As long as we have fully opened things up by the school holidays then I don’t think the political damage will be too great.”

Another cabinet source said the mood in Whitehall is “downbeat”, adding: “We always said it was June 21 at the earliest. We may need another few weeks to let the effects of vaccination take hold. Doing a partial reopening would create confusion. People have planned on the basis of a full reopening. It’s important that the messaging is consistent.”

Freedom advocates

As with every other big decision in the UK’s pandemic response, there is no shortage of Tory MPs making their feelings about the need to end all coronavirus restrictions on 21 June very clear to the prime minister.

Writing in The Telegraph, influential chair of the 1922 committee Graham Brady last week argued that as “we are approaching the final hurdle” of Johnson’s roadmap, “it is unsurprising that we again hear siren voices warning that it is too soon to take such a risk”.

However, Brady continued that “Johnson’s instinct is to move back to a world where people make their own choices and find their own balance of risks”, adding that “there is now so much evidence to support him in that direction”.

Speaking to Politico, Tory MP and chair of the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group Mark Harper said he expects the government to deliver on its deadline. “I think the government will want to try very hard not to substantiate the [Dominic] Cummings accusation about shopping trolley decision-making,” he said.

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and a member of Sage, has also lent his support to those calling for a full unlocking, telling the Daily Mail he is “optimistic because I think that the vaccines have been so incredibly successful”. 

Farrar’s argument has been bolstered by data giving “the clearest sign yet that the link between cases and admissions is being broken, raising hopes that 21 June is on track”, The i reports.

The newspaper says that out of 12,383 cases of the Delta variant in England, less than 4% turned up at A&E and 1% were hospitalised. Of those 126 people admitted to hospital, just 2% - three patients - had received both doses of a coronavirus vaccine.

What next?

According to The Times, a decision on what restrictions if any will be relaxed on 21 June can be expected on Monday, when the government’s social distancing review will be published.

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