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UK PM expected to delay COVID lockdown end by 4 weeks to July 19


UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce a four-week delay to an end to all legal lockdown restrictions in the country when he makes a statement later on Monday in relation to so-called “Freedom Day”, which was set for June 21.

The last and fourth stage of the lockdown roadmap is now expected around July 19 instead amid a worrying spike in cases of the Delta variant, which experts fear will result in greater hospitalisations in the coming weeks.

On Sunday, the UK recorded 7,490 new cases of COVID-19 and eight deaths, with the seven-day average for cases up 49 per cent compared with the seven days before. Scientists and health officials have called for a delay in lifting all social distance norms in order to allow the vaccination programme to gain further ground, with second doses for the older age groups and first doses for the younger population cohorts of over-25s now eligible for jabs.

“It is one last heave. It is a straight race between the vaccine and the virus,” a senior government source was quoted by ‘The Daily Telegraph’ as saying after Johnson met his Cabinet ministers and scientific advisers to assess the latest data.

Johnson is expected to blame the delay on the third wave of COVID-19 infections and say it will allow millions of more people to be vaccinated and more to receive a second jab by the end of July. As well as a delay in lifting restrictions to allow scientists more time to monitor the Delta variant – first identified in India – the UK Prime Minister is also likely to announce a drive to accelerate the vaccination programme.

The extension will be put to a House of Commons vote this month and could trigger a backbench rebellion from Johnson’s own Conservative Party MPs, who have been calling for an end to all lockdown measures for some time.

Under stage four of the roadmap, venues and events would be allowed to operate without capacity limits and the cap on guests at weddings would also be lifted. However, a further delay means entertainment venues like nightclubs and theatres and pubs and bars must continue to operate with restricted numbers. The guidance that “everyone who can work from home must do so” will remain in place and weddings can be attended only by 30 guests.

The June 21 timeline was tied to several criteria being met, including the vaccine rollout continues successfully; evidence shows vaccines effectively reduce hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated; infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS, and the assessment of risks is not fundamentally changed by new variants of concern (VOCs).

Of these four criteria, the one related to VOCs is the one tripping up the schedule as Public Health England‘s latest analysis last week found that the Delta VOC was about 60 per cent more transmissible than the Alpha VOC identified in the UK and also reduces the effectiveness of vaccines to some extent.

Senior ministers, including Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Matt Hancock are understood to have signed off on the plans to delay June 21 after being briefed by Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser.

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