Katy Balls

Will lockdown still be eased on 21 June?

Will lockdown still be eased on 21 June?
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While Boris Johnson used the bank holiday weekend to get married, scientists have been busy filling the airwaves with various warnings about proceeding with the final lockdown easing on 21 June. There have been a series of statements from both government advisers and other scientists arguing that in the face of rising cases of the Indian variant – which the World Health Organisation now calls ‘Delta’ – it would be unwise to press ahead with the next stage of the roadmap this month.

Nervtag member Prof Ravi Gupta has said the UK appears to be in what could be described as the early stages of a third wave – with an ‘exponential’ rise in cases. As a result, he says the 21 June easing ought to be pushed back by a few weeks to allow for more time to process the data. Meanwhile, Dr Sakthi Karunanithi – director of public health at Lancashire county council – has said it ‘makes sense’ to delay unlocking until ‘the vulnerable get two doses of the vaccine’ (though it’s worth pointing out the government’s plan is to do this before 21 June anyway). BMA Council Chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul has said No. 10 must be careful not to ‘repeat past mistakes’ on unlocking too early.

Ministers though are slightly less doom and gloom – insisting that it is simply too early to make a decision and they are waiting for more data. Their aim is to make sure all over-50s have been offered two doses by 21 June which is viewed as key to making sure that the link between cases and hospitalisations is severed. There is also promising news from Bolton, the former hotspot of the Indian variant, where the case rate is falling and hospital numbers are well below the peak.

The government’s decision on the next stage of lockdown easing is due on 14 June – a week before the unlocking is scheduled for. A few weeks ago, ministers hoped to announce their verdict ahead of schedule but that is increasingly unlikely.

The government's approach has some support, too, from the scientific community. Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin institute, has said the Prime Minister is right to wait to make a decision and it is inevitable cases will rise – ‘unless we see a big spike in hospitalisations I suspect the government will continue with lifting the easing of restrictions’. But he added that there could be some ‘residual restrictions’.

This is where the debate is more likely headed. For all the talk of 21 June going ahead or being postponed, the government actually has a lot of options when it comes to pressing ahead in some form. Ministers could decide to continue with the roadmap and lift legal limits on gatherings but at the same time keep various social distancing rules, such as masks or the one metre rule. However, measures that will make it hard for businesses to operate will meet resistance from ministers with business briefs as well as the hospitality industry. It’s also the case that some ministers are keen to make the most of the summer and get as many restrictions as possible lifted now because they worry that by the autumn and winter, general NHS strain and cold weather conditions could mean the government has to bring some restrictions back.