June 21 will no longer herald a full return to normalcy after Boris Johnson resigned himself to a delay of up to four weeks in lifting remaining Covid restrictions.
The prime minister will tell the country on Monday that the latest data on the spread of the Indian or delta variant virus means it is too risky to go ahead as planned. A four week delay would mean pushing the date back to July 19.
It had been hoped that at least weddings would receive a special dispensation after 50,000 couples – many of whom canceled or delayed previous celebrations – had booked ceremonies for the four weeks following what had been billed as ” freedom “.
But senior government sources have said that even though Mr Johnson could increase the current limit of 30 at weddings, restrictions on the number are expected to remain after officials in Matt Hancock’s health department warned that they could become “super-broadcaster” events.
The British Medical Association has become the latest body to ask for a delay after data released Friday showed the ‘R’ rate was at its highest since January – between 1.2 and 1.4 – with daily cases reaching 8 125, the highest number since February.
Figures released by Public Health England showed 42,323 cases of the Indian variant have been confirmed in the UK – a 240% increase from last week. PHE estimates the strain to be 60% more transmissible than the Kent or alpha variant, with cases doubling every four and a half days in parts of England.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has reportedly warned the government that a third wave of Covid cases could exceed the peak of the first wave if the June 21 reopening goes as planned.
Hopes of a full reopening by that date have also been partly affected by the news that Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs only offer 33% protection after a dose, compared to up to 80% protection against previous variants.
Almost 78 percent of UK adults have had one jab, but only around 55 percent have had two.
Mr Johnson has reportedly ruled that a delay of up to four weeks – but not more – is needed to allow more people to be double-bitten before the final restrictions are relaxed. Plans are underway to use the delay to push the vaccine rollout harder.
Nadhim Zahawi, the Minister of Vaccines, insisted on Friday the government remains on track to offer every adult a first dose by the end of July, but admitted that the supply of the all-important Pfizer vaccine would be “tight”.
Those under 40 should be offered an alternative to the AstraZeneca jab after it has been linked to rare blood clots.
A senior Whitehall source said: “A delay would allow more first doses but also, critically, more second doses and more time for those doses to work. It would give protection to the very many millions of people who have not had their second doses yet but may be vulnerable to coronavirus.
“The Prime Minister has always said that the reopening must be ‘cautious but irreversible’. We do not want to do anything that risks turning back the clock.”
After weeks of wrangling between ministers, scientists and business leaders, government sources confirmed on Friday that some restrictions will remain in place beyond June 21, with a four-week delay the most likely option. The decision is expected to be reviewed two weeks after the start of the extension.
Face coverings, advice on working from home and social distancing should all remain, along with the “rule of six” and restrictions on the number allowed in arenas, theaters and other venues. The discos will remain closed.
The Cabinet Covid Operations Committee will meet on Sunday evening to make a final decision on any easements that can be implemented before the decision is endorsed by Cabinet on Monday morning and announced by Mr Johnson later today.
The news will be a blow to businesses that had prepared to reopen fully on June 21, with many employees hiring and training, sending others on leave and ordering supplies in order to provide customers with normal service. .
The Treasury has so far refused to extend the freeze on business rates for the hospitality and leisure sector which ends on July 1, arguing that sufficient support is already in place.
One concession confirmed by the government was that Wimbledon would be allowed to open with 50% capacity – down from 25% – when the world’s most famous tennis tournament begins on June 28.
Sarah Haywood, of the UK Weddings Taskforce industry body, said wedding businesses “will collapse” as a result of a delay because “we’ve reached the end of the trail.”
She said more than 50,000 weddings had been booked for the four weeks after June 21, as ministers had repeatedly reassured the public that the restrictions would end on that date, adding: “At every meeting with the government, they said they were on the right track for an unrestricted reopening. , and when we pressed them to have a contingency plan, they didn’t discuss it. “
Ms Haywood said 30,000 couples had already paid for their wedding in full and wedding companies would now have to repay at least some of that money because the government had made it clear that no compensation would be available.
One option the ministers are considering is to align the rules on weddings with those for funerals, where number restrictions are based on how many people a place can safely accommodate with social distancing in place.
However, indoor vigils are still limited to 30 people, suggesting that wedding receptions could still be limited to 30, although more can attend the ceremony itself.
A minister called the uncertainty ahead of Monday “frustrating” and said the “maintenance scheme” threatened to hurt business confidence.
Another government source said ministers were aware of the possibility of a fierce backlash from some parts of the public against a delay in unlocking, adding: “There is concern around people who have made plans in good faith. Even though the government has always been June 21 was clearly the earliest date, a lot of people have clung to it. “