The UK government’s hopes of scrapping the final social restrictions imposed on the public to tackle the coronavirus pandemic appear to be fading fast as the Delta variant of the disease continues to drive up infections.
As it stands, Boris Johnson’s roadmap ends on 21 June when the last precautionary measures are due to be lifted but the threat posed by the new strain – thought to be 60 per cent more transmissible than the Alpha variant – is raising doubts about the wisdom of pressing ahead.
Ministers are reportedly considering a delay of up to four weeks – a longer extension than the previously floated two-week period. According to The Times, a month-long postponement is being discussed as it would give businesses more “certainty” in reopening, while allowing a higher number of people to finish their course of vaccination.
The government is understood to be concerned that a two-week delay may end up being extended, causing further setbacks for businesses, while The Guardian reported that chancellor Rishi Sunak is willing to accept a delay of up to a month in order to ensure it is a permanent move.
While there is significant pressure for a return to normality as the summer weather finally arrives and after more than 14 months of hardship, frustration and uncertainty, the prime minister has previously promised to be guided by “data, not dates” in his decision-making and, at present, the former is not looking good.
Analysis by Public Health England published on Friday shows that the number of Delta variant cases across the UK has trebled in a week. There are now 42,323 cases of the variant, which originated in India, up from 12,431 in the week to 3 June.
The variant is now the dominant strain in the UK, accounting for more than 90 per cent of new Covid-19 cases, while the rate of growth in infections across regions is currently showing a doubling time of between 4.5 days to 11.5 days.
Commenting on the question of whether the government would be forced to implement a delay, health secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News on 6 June: “It is too early to make a final decision. We’ll keep watching the data for another week or so and, critically, watching that link on the number of cases to the number of people who end up in hospital.
“And it is absolutely true that the number of people ending up in hospital is broadly flat at the moment.”
But the UK recorded 7,490 new infections on Sunday as the caseload continues to rise, plus eight more deaths within 28 days of testing positive, bringing the total number of fatalities since the pandemic began to 127,904.
The increase has been sufficient to cause NHS staff to come forward to warn that frontline workers in particular have been “broken” by the pandemic and are “close to burnout”.
“Everyone in the NHS at the moment is kind of terrified,” said Dr Megan Smith, legal and policy officer for campaign group EveryDoctor.
Dr Emily Bell, a GP from the northwest of England, added: “We know there's still a lot of unclear messaging going on, and I think unfortunately people’s behaviour has been relaxing.”
“And then the beaches are packed, nobody’s wearing a mask, there's no social distancing, and you just want to weep.
“The NHS is still in crisis and we cannot cope as it is. Unlocking poses a real threat to it just collapsing, and my biggest concern is patient safety.”
The public has also expressed anxiety over measures being lifted, with a recent poll for The Independent finding that 65 per cent of people said they were “worried” about dropping social distancing mandates.
A number of experts have also sounded the alarm about the risk involved in pushing on with stage four of the easing process.
Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the government and chair of the independent Sage group, told Sky on 7 June: “There are 5,300 new cases of the disease per day in the United Kingdom and we’re up about 2,000 on last week.
“Now we’ve been discussing whether or not we’re going into a serious third wave and I don’t think we can possibly wait any longer. This is the evidence of another wave appearing.”
“I think there’s a significant chance that [the date] could change,” Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, told the same network last week.
“We’re better off being cautious at this point and being able to progressively unlock ourselves than to overdo it and then end up having to lockdown fully all over again.”
His comments followed those of Professor Ravi Gupta, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group counselling the government, who told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Bank Holiday Monday that the UK is now in the grip of an “early” third wave of Covid-19 infections spearheaded by the Delta variant.
“There has been exponential growth in the number of the new cases and at least three-quarters of them are the new variant,” the University of Cambridge academic said.
“Of course the numbers of cases are relatively low at the moment - all waves start with low numbers of cases that grumble in the background and then become explosive, so the key here is that what we are seeing here is the signs of an early wave.
“It will probably take longer than earlier waves to emerge because of the fact that we do have quite high levels of vaccination in the population, so there may be a false sense of security for some time, and that’s our concern.”
Prof Gupta pointed out that Mr Johnson’s roadmap was formulated before the existence of the variant was known and backed delaying the final easing by “a few weeks” to allow more people to be vaccinated against it.
“If you look at the costs and benefits of getting it wrong, I think it is heavily in favour of delay, so I think that's the key thing,” he said.
“People are not saying we should abandon the 21 June date altogether but just to delay it by a few weeks while we gather more intelligence and we can look at the trajectory in a clearer way.”
A number of other leading experts have agreed that the current date for relaxation is inadvisable given the current evidence but, so far, none are advocating new lockdowns - either national or local to hotspots like the hardest-hit north west, Midlands and London.
Instead, they are united in calling for stage four to be temporarily delayed and for the public to be patient one final time in order to avoid a fresh setback that could undo much of the good work this year’s successful vaccine rollout has achieved.
However, indecision over the extent of the delay required is causing fresh exasperation in some quarters, with Professor Robert Dingwall of Nottingham Trent University complaining on Times Radio on Tuesday morning that the government’s critics “can’t even agree on what delay they’d like.”
“By the time we get to 21 June, everybody who is in the nine priority groups or the highest risk will have had both jabs, and would have had a period of time to consolidate the immunity,” he said.
“What we are going on with is really running into younger age groups who are intrinsically much lower risk.
“Many of the scientists who’ve been talking over the weekend simply haven’t adjusted their expectations to understand that (for these people) Covid is a mild illness in the community.”
In better news, the immunisation programme itself is continuing to make major headway: nearly 57 per cent of adults in the UK are now estimated to have received both doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, with 79 per cent having been given a single jab.
Ultimately, the decision on whether to persist with unlocking rests with the prime minister, a man who was deeply reluctant to take unpopular decisions (and arguably left it too late) in relation to the first and second waves of the coronavirus, at least according to his estranged former adviser Dominic Cummings, who said as much during his recent marathon parliamentary testimony.
Despite his former reluctance, Boris Johnson is preparing to announce a delay in the easing of lockdown restrictions.
Rather than lifting all social-distancing rules as of 21 June, he is expected to announce that they will remain in place until 19 July. England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance will join the prime minister at the 6pm press conference on Monday.