Boris Johnson stands by his comments that there is nothing in the data to suggest a deviation from England’s reopening on 21 June, Downing Street has said, as scientists said the UK was facing a perilous moment.
The business minister Paul Scully also said on Tuesday there was “cautious optimism” that the date for the final lifting of restrictions could go ahead as planned. He told Times Radio the government did not want to have to roll back restrictions again.
“One thing that we saw last year, before Christmas, was the stop-start nature just didn’t work for businesses and cost them more. So we’ve got to get it absolutely right. People’s jobs and livelihoods depend on it.”
However, the government’s former chief scientific adviser, Prof Sir Mark Walport, said it was “not impossible” that the country was in the foothills of a new wave, as the Delta coronavirus variant, first identified in India, takes over, accounting for three-quarters of cases.
“I hope not, but it’s not impossible,” Walport told BBC Breakfast. While the B.1.1.7 variant, or “UK variant”, was disappearing, the B.1.617.2 variant, or India variant, was taking over, he said. The World Health Organization has renamed B.1.1.7 as the Alpha variant, and B.1.617.2 as the Delta variant.
Walport said: “It is a quite perilous moment, but we’ve just got to keep our fingers crossed that the measures work.” He added: “It’s clear that the B.1.617.2 variant is taking over – it accounts for about 75% of those cases which have been typed – the numbers of infections are getting up, but we would expect that.”
Asked about the prime minister’s view on the latest data, a No 10 spokesman said: “I was going to point to what the PM said on Thursday. The prime minister has said on a number of occasions that we haven’t seen anything in the data but we will continue to look at the data, we will continue to look at the latest scientific evidence as we move through June towards 21 Jun.”
In north-west England, which contains a number of Covid hotspots, the seven-day average for new daily hospital admissions has risen to 23 patients, up from 13 two weeks previously. In other regions, admissions continued to fall or rose slightly.
Last Thursday, Johnson said “I don’t see anything currently in the data” that would lead to any deviation from the current roadmap.
A number of Conservative MPs opposed to further restrictions have fired warning shots at the suggestion the roadmap be delayed. The former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said the prime minister must resist “an organised push by a group of scientists to stop June 21”.
“There is no actual fact that says we shouldn’t unlock on the 21st,” he said. “We were always told that the most important feature of all of this is to protect the most vulnerable. We have now double-dosed pretty near 50% of the population and that encompasses all the most vulnerable.”
Mark Harper, the chair of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, said there should be no reason not to “open up fully” on 21 June if vaccinations worked as well as had been reported.
Walport said the decision was “finely balanced” because hospital admissions were so far not surging.
More data was needed before a final decision could be made about the 21 June easing of restrictions, he said.
“Firstly we have got a new more transmissible variant, of that there is no doubt, though we don’t know exactly how much more transmissible. Secondly, there’s been a change in behaviour following the relaxation of measures on 17 May, and the effects of that will just be starting to come through.
“And thirdly, we’ve got a vaccination programme that is very successful, but with a lot of people that still need both their second dose of vaccine and vaccination from scratch. I’m afraid that weeks before the prime minister has to make the difficult decision it is going to be necessary to bring in the data.”
Scully said the government would make a judgment based on the most recent data. ‘This isn’t a fudge. What we have said is look at the data. We will make a decision on 14 June as to what’s happening on the 21st.
“And clearly we know the fact that the case numbers are going up. We do want to make sure that we will only open up based on data, not those dates. And so, this isn’t a fudge. This is making sure that we just don’t speculate. That we use the latest information and the most accurate information.”