The final stage of lockdown will be pushed back by a month to 19 July in England amid the spread of the Delta variant, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has confirmed.
Johnson told a press conference on 14 June that more time was needed to get vaccinations rolled out to combat the strain of the virus on the NHS.
“We cannot simply eliminate Covid, we must learn to live with it,” Johnson said. “But there are still millions of younger adults who have not been vaccinated, and sadly a proportion of the elderly and vulnerable may still succumb even if they have two jabs. That is why we are so concerned about the Delta variant.”
The variant is between 40% to 80% more transmissible, and the UK is now seeing 8,000 new cases a day, the highest number since February. In some parts of the country, the case load is doubling every week, Johnson said.
By Monday 19 July, Johnson said that the government aimed to have double jabbed around two thirds of the adult population, everyone over 50, the vulnerable, all frontline care workers and everyone over 40, in order to be able to unlock again.
“If after two weeks we have concluded that the risks have diminished, then we reserve the possibility to proceed to step four sooner,” Johnson said. “I am confident we won’t need more than four weeks.”
Although England will remain in phase three, there will be some changes to current lockdown rules. Weddings, funerals and wakes will no longer have a 30-person limit. The government also said the gap between two vaccine doses would be shortened for over-40s from 12 weeks to eight weeks, as it was last month for the over-50s and those who are clinically vulnerable.
The fourth and final stage of the roadmap is when the government “hopes to be in a position to remove all legal limits on social contact”.
The delay in the roadmap from 21 June to 19 July also means that the government’s work-from-home advice will be maintained.
Some City firms, however, have already planned to increase numbers from 21 June, including investment banks Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan.
Rules for remote working when stage four is reached and the resultant impact on office occupancy will depend on the government’s review into social distancing, which is being carried out by the Cabinet Office. The publication of the review will also be pushed back, but will be made public before the beginning of the fourth stage.
“Clearly this is a blow for many businesses, particularly those in the retail and hospitality sectors,” said Roger Barker, director of policy at the Institute of Directors, in a 14 June statement.
Reporting by The Times, also published on 14 June and citing anonymous sources, said that Chancellor Rishi Sunak has rejected a call from business leaders to extend the job retention scheme, where the government pays for 80% of an employee’s salary.
“We are now approaching a cliff edge, with government support for business ending or beginning to taper off,” added Barker. “It is vital that this support is pushed out commensurately with the lockdown extension. Economic support and public health measures must be aligned.”
However, Johnson explained that scientists are not calling for a reversal of progress on lockdown, meaning “that the businesses that are currently open and trading can continue to do that”.
“I think the most important I can say to those businesses who are being asked to wait another four weeks is that I am confident we’ll get there,” Johnson added.
Separately, Public Health England published data on 14 June showing that two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine are “highly effective” against hospitalisation from the Delta variant, with Pfizer-BioNTech 96% effective and Oxford-AstraZeneca 92% effective.
On 11 June, the reproduction rate of the coronavirus — also known as the R number — jumped to between 1.0 to 1.2 in England. The rate in London is higher, with PHE putting it between 1.1 and 1.4. PHE also said that more than 90% of new cases across the country are the Delta variant, which was designated a variant of concern on 21 April.
In a press conference on 14 May, Johnson had told the British public that the UK’s vaccine rollout would be stepped up in a bid to combat the Delta strain. The Prime Minister had also warned that if the variant was “significantly” more contagious than previous iterations, the country would have to face “some hard choices”.
At the time, prior to the third stage of reopening on 17 May, he added that he did not think it was necessary to delay the roadmap.
To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email Bérengère Sim