Monday, February 26

Johnson ‘set to delay’ the lifting of remaining coronavirus restrictions in England

Boris Johnson is set to delay the lifting of remaining coronavirus restrictions in England for a month after his chief medical adviser pressed him to postpone the move following a surge in Covid-19 cases.

The restrictions are meant to be removed on June 21, but Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, has sought a four-week delay. The prime minister is due to make an announcement on Monday.

The expected delay to lifting restrictions comes as the NHS races to vaccinate more adults amid a sharp rise in Covid-19 infections and hospitalisations across the UK due to the coronavirus variant named Delta. Almost 15m adults in England remain unvaccinated, including 2m people aged over 50, according to Financial Times analysis.

Nine in every 10 new Covid-19 cases are the Delta variant, according to a Public Health England report released on Friday. PHE data also indicated Delta, first identified in India, is 64 per cent more transmissible than the previously dominant Alpha variant that originated in Kent.

Two senior Whitehall officials said Whitty advised Johnson this week to postpone what is meant to be the final stage of the government’s lockdown easing plan in England by four weeks and stressed that a shorter delay would be insufficient to control the spread of the virus.

Whitty told the prime minister a four-week delay was vital to avoid a situation in which restrictions are lifted prematurely, only to have to be restored later. One ally of Johnson said: “Irreversibility is driving Boris’ thinking. He doesn’t want to have to ease restrictions now to bring them back later.”

Downing Street said “no decisions have been taken” about whether to lift restrictions on June 21. Johnson might relax guidance on the size of weddings on June 21, even if he retains other restrictions, according to government officials.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents health leaders across the country, said he believed the decision on whether to press ahead with the June 21 easing was “finely balanced . . . but given that trusts and frontline staff are now working flat out to tackle [non-Covid treatment] backlogs and deal with increased demand for emergency care, it only takes a small increase in Covid-19 cases to disrupt non-Covid care”.

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 a rise of 58 per cent on the previous week.