British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has confirmed that the next planned relaxation of coronavirus restrictions in England will be delayed by four weeks until July 19 as a result of the spread of the delta variant.
In a press briefing Monday, Johnson said he is “confident that we won’t need more than four weeks” as millions more people get fully vaccinated against the virus, which could save thousands of lives.
He said it is “sensible to wait just a little longer” and that “now is the time to ease off the accelerator.”
Under the government’s plan for coming out of lockdown, all restrictions on social contact were set to be lifted next Monday. Many businesses, particularly those in hospitality and entertainment, voiced their disappointment ahead of the official announcement.
The variant first found in India is estimated by some to be at least 60% more contagious than the previous dominant strain. British scientists have urged the prime minister to err on the side of caution and postpone plans to lift most coronavirus restrictions in England on June 21. There is growing speculation that the rules will stay in effect at least until July 19.
When Johnson first outlined the government’s four-stage plan for lifting the lockdown in England in February, he set June 21 as the earliest date by which restrictions on people gathering would be lifted. However, he stressed at the time that the timetable was not carved in stone and that all the steps would be driven by “data not dates” and would seek to be “irreversible.”
While hosting the Group of Seven summit in southwest England over the weekend, Johnson conceded that he had grown more pessimistic about the possibility of pressing ahead with the next reopenings.
The speed at which new coronavirus infections have been rising has piled the pressure on Johnson to delay the reopening so more people can get vaccinated. Argar said 10 million second jabs would be administered over the month, providing recipients with high protection against the delta variant.
Professor Andrew Hayward, an epidemiologist from University College London who is a member of a group advising the government, said removing remaining restrictions could “fan the flames” of rising infections. He compared the process to driving a car around a bend without knowing what was around the corner.
On Sunday, the British government reported 7,490 new confirmed cases, one of the highest daily numbers since the end of February. Daily infections have increased threefold over the past few weeks but are still way down from the nearly 70,000 daily cases recorded in January.
Many blame the Conservative government for the spike in infections, saying it acted too slowly to impose the strictest quarantine requirements on everyone arriving from India, which has endured a catastrophic resurgence of the virus.
Across Europe, many countries, including France, have tightened restrictions for British travelers to prevent the delta variant from spreading. Others, like Spain, are allowing British tourists to arrive without being required to take a test if they have been fully vaccinated.
Despite concerns about the delta variant, the U.K.’s vaccine rollout has won plaudits as one of the world’s speediest and most coherent. As of Sunday, around 62% of the British population had received one shot, while about 44% had got two jabs.
The government aims to offer every adult in the U.K. one vaccine dose by the end of July. The devolved administration in Wales said it will have offered one jab to every adult by Monday, six weeks ahead of schedule.
The rapid rollout of vaccines and a strict months-long lockdown helped drive down the number of virus-related deaths in the U.K. in recent months. Despite that, the country has recorded nearly 128,000 virus-related deaths, more than any other nation in Europe.