Boris Johnson has this evening confirmed that he will delay the lifting of all Covid restrictions by four weeks to 19 July. Announcing the decision in a press conference, Johnson said the Indian variant – also known as the Delta variant – has changed the picture and meant the government was no longer able to proceed with the full unlocking plan they had first hoped.
The Prime Minister said two jabs were very effective against the new variant. The problem? '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 had two jabs,' Johnson said.
Without a delay, Johnson argued 'there is a real possibility that the virus will outrun the vaccines and that thousands more deaths would ensue that could otherwise have been avoided'.
Delaying a full reopening, he said, would give 'our NHS a few more crucial weeks to get those remaining jabs into the arms of those who need them'.
There will, however, be some easing of the current restrictions. The rules on weddings and wakes will be relaxed to bring them in line with funerals. This means that the legal cap of 30 people at a wedding will go – however, social distancing will remain, so venues will need to work out their Covid secure capacity.
Masks will be required indoors and dancing indoors, along with singing, is not permitted. The government will also continue with its events research programme – which means potentially increasing capacity at some sporting events.
So, is this the final delay to lockdown easing? The Prime Minister was keen to stress his confidence that the country will open up on 19 July (it could even be sooner – with a review of the data planned two weeks in).
Johnson said he believed all the data showed there would not need to be another delay – and that he saw this as a 'terminus date' rather than no earlier than.
However, he did not give a cast iron guarantee and said he could not rule out that a new variant could change the picture again.
As for Johnson's preferred direction of travel, there were strong hints that he would like to move from legally-binding Covid restrictions to guidance from 19 July. He said that from this date people may still wish to ‘be sensible’ on social distancing or wearing masks – which suggested such measures could be voluntary.
Will it be enough to calm his party? While Johnson did his best to sound upbeat about the outlook for 19 July, the problem is it wasn't so long ago that he was saying he saw nothing in the data to delay 21 June.