A senior government minister insisted it was too early to speculate whether the final stage of the lockdown in England would go as planned on June 21, as industry bodies said the hospitality sector needed advance notice if “lingering restrictions” were to remain.
Vaccine Minister Nadhim Zahawi urged people to wait another two weeks to find out whether the roadmap date for lifting all legal limits can be met, also urging the government to provide ‘notice’ of any “persistence” measures for ailing companies.
He refused to deny that restrictions such as wearing masks and working from home can remain in place.
Ministers wonder if an increase in cases and a further spread of the Covid variant discovered in India could derail Boris Johnson’s roadmap. Despite progress in the vaccination program, advisers are uncertain to what extent new infections – which are at levels last seen in late March – will translate into hospitalizations and deaths.
An announcement regarding the June 21 reopening will be made on June 14, but Zahawi has twice refused to rule out the possibility that the planned unlock will be changed. “We need to look at the data and we’ll share it with the country,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
“It would be completely wrong for me to speculate now. There are a lot of people watching your agenda, in jobs and businesses, who basically want to follow the exact direction the government is giving them while taking their personal responsibilities.
“At the moment, we don’t have enough data. There are some areas of the country where there is literally no B.1.617.2 [the variant first found in India] and everything is quite stable, in other parts of the country it begins to overtake the B117 variant – the Kent variant.
“We have to watch in the next two weeks and then we’ll share that with the country. “
The minister also insisted the government had “absolutely” thrown a ring of protection around nursing homes – despite Dominic Cummings’ claim this week that the health secretary lied when he said that all hospital patients had been tested before being referred.
Zahawi said Matt Hancock only said people “should be tested,” and repeatedly told critics, “Hindsight is a wonderful thing. “
If the easing of restrictions next month is delayed, the British Beer and Pub Association has said businesses should be given “notice” and “financial compensation”.
Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the group, said the government should “stick to its roadmap” and stressed: “June 21 is absolutely essential for the recovery of the sector. The day of recovery does not begin until the restrictions are removed.
Others urged the government to be careful as June 21 approaches. Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said staff were ‘going all out’ to deal with a backlog of care needs on waiting lists, and therefore had no room for an increase significant number of patients with coronavirus.
“While it’s great news that vaccinations are working – and I think it sends us a message in terms of opening up on June 21 – what we need to remember is that there is still a lot of people that need to be vaccinated, and we know this variant originated in India is much more transmissible, ”Hopson told BBC Breakfast.
“So there’s going to be a very difficult decision on how quickly we open, and that’s why we’re calling very clearly this morning – let’s have the best quality of trade-off debate here and try, if I can be that bold, to have a rather better quality of evidence-based debate on how quickly we should ease lockdowns than perhaps we had in previous phases. “
He also suggested ministers should take into account the increased burden on UK holiday hotspot hospitals in the coming months, saying trust staff in those areas were “really worried” about the summer.
Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, also said it was “too early to move forward” and that June 21 was “very ambitious looking at the national situation”.
She told Sky News that parts of the UK are seeing a “sharp increase” in the number of cases, adding: “To avoid more preventable deaths … we really have to be careful. “
Downing Street said no decision had been made and speculation was premature.