What will Boris Johnson announce on Monday? The Prime Minister is due to update the nation on whether the final stage of the roadmap out of lockdown can proceed on 21 June as planned. However, with cases on the rise and the Indian variant spreading, various government advisers have spent the past few weeks taking to the airwaves to warn of calamity ahead should Johnson lift all restrictions. There is also a push from some in the Cabinet to either delay the roadmap or opt for a more limited easing.
In truth, no final decision will be made until Sunday. The Prime Minister is currently busy in Cornwall attempting to woo world leaders (and avoid a diplomatic row with the US over the Northern Ireland protocol). SAGE scientists have been working on a final report of the latest data, with many lockdown doves pointing to the number of daily cases on Wednesday (7,540) as reason for extra caution.
Johnson is thought to be upbeat about lifting restrictions but even he sounded a little more downbeat than usual yesterday when he said:
'What everyone can see very clearly is cases are going up and in some places hospitalisations are going up. There are arguments being made one way or the other [on delay] – we will be looking at the data.'
Key to the Prime Minister's decision is not how high cases are but whether the link between cases and hospitalisations and deaths has been broken.
Behind the scenes, three main scenarios are being planned for.
The first is a big bang reopening. This is the option that was being talked up several weeks ago before cases of the Indian variant spiked. Legal limits on gatherings would go. So, too, would most forms of social distancing, such as the one metre rule. The only remanning restriction would likely be face masks on public transport. However, ministers are increasingly pessimistic that this option will come to pass.
If Johnson decides that this is too drastic in the face of warnings of a third wave, the next scenario is a dialled down version of so-called 'freedom day'. This would mean the 21 June easing goes ahead but in a more limited way. For example, the number cap could be lifted on life events such as weddings but nightclubs could remain closed for a while longer. There could also be an easing on restrictions for outdoor socialising, while some limits remain in terms of numbers allowed at indoor meet-ups. The use of face masks in certain indoor settings would also be likely to continue.
Should Johnson conclude that the data is pointing in the wrong direction or is inconclusive, then the third scenario of a delay could come to pass. At present, this is being discussed as a two-week delay.
However, there are two ways it could manifest itself. For example, Johnson could announce a two week delay to look at the data and then review whether the roadmap can proceed in a fortnight's time.
Or he could, alternatively, be more firm. The PM might say the two week delay is for final second jabs for the over-50s, confirming that the full easing will take place in a fortnight's time. This latter option would provide businesses more confidence than the first.
All of these scenarios present the Prime Minister with pros and cons. It is ultimately a decision only he can make, given Johnson must take the broader picture into account.
Johnson has scientists and Tory MPs lobbying him to do different things. It's in part why many of the Prime Minister's colleagues believe a compromise unlocking is now the most likely option.