UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday announced a four-week delay in the final stage of easing lockdown restrictions in England until July 19, as he said the link between coronavirus infections and hospitalisations remains at concerning levels due to the more transmissible Delta variant.
Scientists advising the government had warned there could be a "significant resurgence" in people needing hospital treatment for COVID-19 if stage four of easing the lockdown went ahead on June 21.
The last and fourth stage of the lockdown roadmap, dubbed "Freedom Day", will now move to July 19 instead, amid a worrying spike in cases of the Delta variant, first identified in India, which experts fear will result in greater hospitalisations in coming weeks.
"It is sensible to wait a little longer," Johnson said, as he confirmed that July 19 is now expected to be the date for a full unlocking and that he was "confident" that a further delay beyond that should not be required.
"We will now accelerate the second jabs for the over-40s, just as we did for over-50s, to give them all maximum protection," he said, in reference to a planned acceleration of the vaccination programme.
Johnson said the month-long delay was to give the National Health Service (NHS) "extra time" and "few more crucial weeks" because of the concerns around the Delta variant, which has caused infection rates to double in the worst affected areas of the country.
"We must learn to live with it; vaccination greatly reduces risk... [but] even if the link between hospitalisation and vaccination has weakened, it hasn't been broken," he said.
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 Boris Johnson met his Cabinet ministers and scientific advisers to assess the latest data.
The extension is likely to be put to a House of Commons vote later 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.
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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