Boris Johnson is expected to delay lifting the remaining coronavirus restrictions in England by one month after his chief medical adviser urged him to postpone the decision following an increase in Covid-19 cases.
The restrictions are set to be lifted on June 21, but Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, has asked for a four-week delay. The prime minister is due to make an announcement on Monday.
The expected delay in lifting restrictions comes as the NHS races to vaccinate more adults amid a sharp rise in Covid-19 infections and hospitalizations across the UK due to the variant coronavirus named Delta. Nearly 15 million adults in England are still unvaccinated, including 2 million people over 50, according to the Financial Times analysis.
Nine out of ten new cases of Covid-19 are the Delta variant, according to a report from Public Health England released on Friday.
PHE data also indicated that Delta, first identified in India, is 64% more transmissible than the previously dominant Alpha variant originating in Kent.
Two senior Whitehall officials said Whitty advised Johnson this week to postpone for four weeks what is supposed to be the last step in the government’s easing plan in England and stressed that a shorter time frame would be insufficient to control the spread of the virus.
Whitty told the Prime Minister that a four week delay was vital to avoid a situation in which the restrictions were lifted prematurely, only to then have to be reinstated later.
A Johnson ally said: “Irreversibility drives Boris’ thinking. He doesn’t want to have to relax the restrictions now and bring them back later. “
Downing Street said “no decision has been made” on whether to lift the restrictions on June 21. Johnson could relax his guidelines on the size of marriages on June 21, although he retains other restrictions, according to government officials.
With two doses of a coronavirus vaccine showing good protection against Delta variant infection, the government is looking to get more hits in the arms. Currently, 55.4% of the adult population has received two doses.
Johnson received data on Thursday describing the latest analysis of the Delta variant and its potential impact on the NHS. “It is now essential that we overtake everyone as quickly as possible,” said an official.
A Cabinet Office insider said: “A delay [to lifting the final restrictions] is the only reasonable course of action. This is our working hypothesis. The latest modeling is disastrous and it would be suicide to go ahead with complete easing. ”
Government medical advisers modeled the impact of a four-week delay on immunization levels, concluding that a smaller delay would not make much of a difference.
But they believe four weeks would have a substantial impact by increasing the number of fully vaccinated adults with two doses, as well as offering younger people at least some level of protection from a single vaccine.
“They can predict how many different age groups will be vaccinated and modeling shows that after four weeks this has a major impact on positive cases,” an official said, adding that it would allow the NHS to further double the most 40 years old. as well as the most vulnerable.
The UK has recorded the highest weekly rate of Covid-19 cases since early March, with 45,895 new infections reported in the past seven days. This is an increase of 58% from the previous week.
Data from the Office for National Statistics showed the infection rate to be highest in the North West of England and among children of secondary school age.
Hospitalizations for Covid-19 have risen sharply since the Delta variant became dominant, with 884 beds occupied in England on Friday, down from a low of 730 on May 22. They increased 9.8% over the past week.
The link between cases, hospitalizations and deaths has not been broken by vaccines, but data suggests it has weakened considerably.
More than half of the 42 people who died after being infected with the Delta variant were not vaccinated, according to PHE.
With the elderly being much less likely to be infected now due to vaccination than during the spate of infection last fall, the death rate is expected to be 75% lower amid the latest increase in cases, according to the Financial Times analysis.
Scientists, health officials and economists have supported delaying the end of restrictions in England beyond June 21.
Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge and member of the government advisory group on threats of new and emerging respiratory viruses, said it was “a delicate time as the rollout of vaccination has not reached. enough people and we risk losing some of the gains we have made ”.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents health leaders across the country, said he believed the decision whether or not to pursue the June 21 easing was “finely balanced. . . but as the trusts and frontline staff are now working hard to fight [non-Covid treatment] arrears and facing increased demand for emergency care, it only takes a small increase in Covid-19 cases to disrupt non-Covid care ”.
Kallum Pickering, an economist at Berenberg Bank, said the economic effect of a delay in easing the final restrictions would be minor.
“Any damage caused by further easing after most restrictions are lifted could anyway be offset by a confidence effect if vaccines turn out to be a game-changer,” he added.