As Boris Johnson wines and dines world leaders and their partners in Cornwall, ministers are increasingly pessimistic over the pace of the government roadmap out of lockdown. The Prime Minister isn't due to make a final decision on whether the June 21 unlocking will proceed until Sunday with an announcement due on Monday. Yet in Whitehall, reports are circulating that a delay is near inevitable and that rather than the two week delay floated in the papers last week it could actually be for a month.
Government aides are gloomy over the chances of any substantial reopening – pointing to rising case numbers as reason for caution. Recent data has encouraged ministers to take the view that the Indian variant – estimated to be 64 per cent more infectious than the Kent strain – means any significant unlocking cannot go ahead. There could still be some form of easing. Johnson is keen for something to point to, with weddings the most likely sector to be eased (though there are conflicting reports regarding which restrictions will be lifted).
When Johnson makes the announcement on Monday, many are already braced for a delay. However, what will be key to businesses is how he phrases it. As I reported on Coffee House this week, there are two scenarios in the case of a delay. The first would see Johnson delay the lockdown and promise a review of the data in a few weeks' time. Such an option is met with heavy scepticism by business leaders as well as Tory MPs as it offers little in the way of certainty. There is a sense that it could lead to endless reviews.
The second option is for Johnson to announce a delay with a (supposed) hard deadline. Were Johnson to opt for a delay of a couple of weeks in this scenario, he would say that it was down to vaccination figures and therefore no matter what the data said, the UK would press on with the unlocking when the time came. It's this option that is favoured by business-minded ministers as it is seen as harder to move away from or fudge. It's in part why the idea of a four week delay is gaining traction as scientific advisers claim it points to any easing being irreversible.
However, any delay comes with risk. Given cases are rising, it's unclear whether scientific advisers will be relaxed about higher case numbers in a few weeks' time even with increased vaccinations. There is a creeping concern among Tory MPs that with booster shots required in the autumn and cases on an upward trajectory, any delay to the roadmap will be the first of many – no matter what the Prime Minister promises on Monday night.