Boris Johnson will tell the country on Monday that the latest data on the spread of the Indian or delta virus variant means it is too risky to go ahead as planned – Hollie Adams/Bloomberg
June 21 will no longer herald a full return to normality after Boris Johnson resigned himself to a delay of up to four weeks in lifting the remaining Covid restrictions.
The Prime Minister will tell the country on Monday that the latest data on the spread of the Indian or delta virus variant means it is too risky to go ahead as planned. A four-week delay would mean pushing the date back to July 19.
It had been hoped that weddings at least would be given a special dispensation after 50,000 couples – many of whom will have cancelled or delayed earlier celebrations – booked ceremonies for the four weeks following what had been billed as “freedom day”.
But senior government sources said that while Mr Johnson might increase the current 30-person limit at weddings, restrictions on numbers would have to remain after officials from Matt Hancock’s health department warned that they could become “super-spreader” events.
The British Medical Association became the latest body to call for a delay after data released on Friday showed the ‘R’ rate at its highest since January – between 1.2 and 1.4 – with daily cases reaching 8,125, the highest number since February.
Figures published by Public Health England showed that 42,323 cases of the Indian variant have been confirmed in the UK – an increase of 240 per cent from last week. PHE estimates that the strain is 60 per cent more transmissible than the Kent or alpha variant, with cases doubling every four and a half days in some parts of England.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) is understood to have warned the Government that a third wave of Covid cases could exceed the first wave peak if the June 21 reopening were to go ahead as planned.
Hopes for a full reopening on that date have also been affected partly by the news that both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs give only 33 per cent protection after one dose, compared with up to 80 per cent protection against previous variants.
Almost 78 per cent of UK adults have had one jab, but only around 55 per cent have had two.
Mr Johnson is understood to have decided a delay of up to four weeks – but no longer – is necessary to allow for more people to be double-jabbed before the final restrictions are eased. Plans are under way to use the delay to push harder on the vaccine rollout.
Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, insisted on Friday that the Government remained on course to offer every adult a first dose by the end of July, but admitted supplies of the all-important Pfizer jab would be “tight”.
Under-40s have to be offered an alternative to the AstraZeneca jab after it was linked to rare blood clots.
A senior Whitehall source said: “A delay would allow for more first doses but also, critically, more second doses and more time for those doses to take effect. It would give protection to many, many millions of people who haven’t had their second doses yet but may be vulnerable to coronavirus.
“The Prime Minister always said the reopening should be ‘cautious but irreversible’. We don’t want to do anything that risks going backwards.”
After weeks of wrangling between ministers, scientists and business leaders, government sources confirmed on Friday that some restrictions would remain in place beyond June 21, with a four-week delay the most likely option. The decision is expected to be reviewed two weeks into the extension.
Face coverings, work from home advice and social distancing are all expected to remain, together with the “rule of six” and restrictions on numbers allowed in arenas, theatres and other venues. Nightclubs will remain closed.
The Cabinet’s Covid Operations committee will meet on Sunday evening to make a final decision about any easements that can go ahead before the decision is rubber-stamped by the Cabinet on Monday morning and announced by Mr Johnson later that day.
The news will come as a bitter blow to businesses that had geared up to reopen in full on June 21, with many hiring and training staff, bringing others off furlough and ordering supplies in order to offer customers a normal service.
The Treasury is so far refusing to extend the business rates freeze for the hospitality and leisure sector which ends on July 1, arguing that enough support is already in place.
One concession confirmed by the Government was that Wimbledon would be allowed to open with a capacity of 50 per cent – up from 25 per cent – when the world’s most famous tennis tournament begins on June 28.
Sarah Haywood, of the industry body UK Weddings Taskforce, said wedding businesses would “collapse” as the result of a delay because “we have reached the end of the runway”.
She said more than 50,000 weddings were booked for the four weeks after June 21, as ministers had repeatedly reassured the public that restrictions would end on that date, adding: “In every single meeting with Government, they said they were on track for unrestricted reopening, and when we pressed them for a contingency plan they wouldn’t discuss it.”
Ms Haywood said 30,000 couples had already paid for their weddings in full and wedding firms would now be left having to refund at least some of that money as the Government had made it clear compensation would not be available.
One option being considered by ministers is for rules on weddings to be aligned with those for funerals, where restrictions on numbers are based on how many people a venue can safely accommodate with social distancing in place.
However, indoor wakes are still limited to 30 people, suggesting wedding receptions could still be limited to 30 even if more can attend the ceremony itself.
One minister described the uncertainty ahead of Monday as “frustrating” and said the “holding pattern” threatened to hit business confidence.
Another government source said ministers were alive to the possibility of a fierce backlash from some quarters of the public against a delay to unlocking, adding: “There is a concern around people who’ve made plans in good faith. Even though the Government was always clear June 21 was the earliest date, lots of people have been hanging on to that.”