Boris gathers Cabinet amid claims June 21 unlocking at risk

Boris gathers Cabinet amid grim claims there is ‘close to nil’ chance of June 21 ‘freedom day’ going ahead as hoped due to India variant alert – with ministers bracing to spend even MORE taxpayer cash keeping stricken business afloat

  • Tory MPs urge Boris Johnson to press ahead with unlocking despite anti-vaxxers
  • Scientists say the Indian variant poses a risk to people who refuse to get a jab
  • Officials said to be drawing up plans for local lockdowns similar to last year
  • Could see shops and hospitality given grants to close in the worst-hit areas 
  • But ministers warn missing June 21 reopening could be Johnson’s ‘Theresa May moment’ – equating it to missing original EU departure date

Boris Johnson is gathering his Cabinet for crunch talks today amid grim claims there is a ‘close to nil’ chance of June 21 lockdown easing going ahead as hoped.

The PM and his senior ministers are meeting with anxiety over the fast-spreading Indian variant of coronavirus running high.

Ministers are preparing emergency plans that could see local restrictions used to combat hotspots, or even the next stage of the roadmap delayed.

In an echo of the tiers system brought in last summer, people in the worst-hit areas could be told to stay at home and restaurants and shops forced to close – with stricken businesses handed more grants to keep them afloat. 

There are also growing doubts about whether lockdown can be lifted across England on June 21. Just a week ago Mr Johnson was holding out the prospect of a broad lifting of legal constraints and social distancing, but it now appears that a review of the rules is unlikely to report this month.

One government source told ITV News that some of the loosening that took effect this week – including ‘Rule of Six’ socialising indoors and in bars and restaurants – might have to be rolled back.  

‘It is clear some social distancing will have to be retained, not everything we’ve set out for 21 June is likely to happen,’ they said.

‘But it is also possible some of the easing we’ve done today will have to be reversed.’

Any backtracking would be a huge blow to Mr Johnson after he vowed a ‘cautious but irreversible’ exit from lockdown.

Tory ministers and MPs have been warning the PM against changing course, complaining that curbs must not be extended to protect people who were refusing vaccines – which are believed to be effective against the Indian variant.

One Cabinet minister warned that missing the June 21 milestone could become Mr Johnson’s ‘Theresa May moment’ – a reference to her failed Brexit deadline. 

‘This freedom date is burned on people’s brains in the same way as her date for leaving the EU,’ the source said. ‘When she missed it, she was finished.’

The source said No 10 had ‘overreacted to panicked warnings from the usual suspects’ in parts of the health establishment.

It comes as Matt Hancock announced that a total of 2,323 cases of the Indian Covid variant have now been found in England – as figures show they have quadrupled in just 10 days and now account for at least one in five infections. 

As the coronavirus crisis took more twists and turns today: 

  • Thousands of pubs, restaurants and cafes welcomed customers indoors for the first time this year;
  • Dozens of flights left UK airports for ‘amber list’ countries such as France, Spain and the United States, despite a warning against doing so from No 10;
  • Figures revealed the Indian variant has now been identified in 86 local authorities, after cases doubled in four days. It now accounts for 20 per cent of infections;
  • Britons aged 36 and 37 were invited to have the jab, with 35-year-olds expected to join the list by the end of the week; 
  • Bedford joined Bolton and Blackburn as a hotspot for the Indian variant; 
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber hit out at ‘selfish’ individuals who refuse the jab, and urged the PM not to abandon the June 21 date; 
  • Downing Street rejected calls for younger people in areas with higher rates of the Indian variant to get their vaccines early;
  • The National Audit Office warned that the cost of tackling Covid had hit £372billion, with the bill rising by more than £100billion since January.

Members of the public queue to receive a Covid-19 vaccine at a temporary vaccination centre at the Essa academy in Bolton, northwest England on May 17

NHS figures show that vaccine uptake among all over-40s, which is at 83 per cent average across England, is below average in all but one (Sefton) of the Indian variant hotspot areas. Although experts do not think the at-risk older age groups are the ones driving outbreaks at the moment, it could be cause for concern if the virus spreads to them 

Environment Secretary George Eustice said today that ‘in some of these areas that are affected, vaccine uptake has been a little bit lower than the national average’

Mr Hancock said in a statement to Parliament yesterday that 483 of the Indian variant cases were in Bolton and Blackburn and it was now dominant there, with cases rising in all age groups as they battle to stem a tide of cases.

Experts say the strain will within days become dominant in the UK, having seen a rise in cases of more than 75 per cent since Thursday. 

The government also faces intense pressure to explain why there was a delay in adding India to the red list of countries, while neighbouring Pakistan had been placed on it days before.

Dominic Cummings, the PM’s former senior adviser, joined the criticism of Whitehall’s slow approach on Monday, calling the UK’s border policy a ‘joke’ because of its ‘refusal’ to learn from pandemic measures used in East Asian countries.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said today that ‘in some of these areas that are affected, vaccine uptake has been a little bit lower than the national average’.

Challenged on comments from Bolton South East MP Yasmin Qureshi suggesting part of the problem was there was poor organisation rather than reluctance to have a jab, Mr Eustice told Times Radio: ‘The feedback that I have had right across the country has been universally positive about the way people locally have delivered this.

‘But it is the case that in some communities there’s been a bit more hesitancy. A lot of work has been done in particular to get BAME communities to engage and to have the vaccine.

‘We just need to keep pushing on that work.’

He told Times Radio that ‘intensive surveillance’ was being used in areas with high case rates but local restrictions remained a possibility.

At the moment there was a ‘clear road map out of the lockdown ‘ with a decision due in a few weeks’ time on whether the June 21 measures can go ahead.

‘If we do have a deterioration in some of these areas then of course we can’t rule out that we would put in place certain local lockdowns,’ he said.

‘At the moment we are doing a lot of intensive surveillance in those areas, with surge testing to identify it and deal with it.’ 

Dominic Cummings, the PM’s former senior adviser, criticised Whitehall’s slow approach to placing India on the red list. Around 20,000 arrived in the UK between the first detection of the variant and Mr Johnson deciding to place India on the red list of countries

Low vaccine uptake fuels variant fear 

By Kate Pickles Health Correspondent for The Daily Mail

Low vaccine uptake could be driving the Indian variant’s spread, figures suggest.

With 400 cases recorded, London has the highest levels of the variant – accounting for almost a third of cases in the whole country – according to Public Health England.

Yet only around a quarter of these cases involved people who had travelled back from India, suggesting more widespread community transmission.

And the true scale of infections in London and elsewhere is likely to be much higher as these figures, the latest available, only refer to cases sequenced up to May 12. The capital also has some of the highest levels of vaccine hesitancy, separate data shows, with below-average uptake among all age groups.

Experts are worried that the new strain is up to 50 per cent more transmissible than the UK [Kent] variant and will become dominant here.

While ministers are confident existing Covid jabs are likely to be effective, they warn millions are yet to be vaccinated which could prompt a third wave and fill hospitals again.

A PHE report shows the North West had the second-highest number of cases up to May 12. By then there had been 319 detected – more than a quarter of all cases – with less than 8 per cent the result of travellers coming back from India. Yesterday, Matt Hancock told MPs cases had doubled in the past week with 483 detected in Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen and blamed vaccine hesitancy for rising hospitalisations.

The Health Secretary said: ‘The majority of people in hospital [in Bolton] with coronavirus were eligible for the jab but have chosen not yet to have the jab and have ended up in hospital.

A No10 spokesman said: ‘We are not complacent and there are a number of different approaches we’re taking with vaccine-hesitant groups.’

Irritation at the refusal of a small number to have a jab intensified yesterday after Mr Hancock told MPs that most patients hospitalised by the Indian variant in the epicentre of the outbreak in Bolton had not had the jab. 

The Health Secretary said most of them had turned down jab offers.

He refused to rule out imposing local lockdowns to try to contain the spread of the variant.

Mr Johnson has also described local lockdowns as a ‘last resort’, with the government instead focusing efforts on surge testing and increasing the availability of vaccinations in the worst-hit areas.

The plans being drawn up at the moment could put parts of the country into something similar to last year’s Tier 4, the equivalent of a full lockdown. 

But some ministers voiced concerns to The Times that local lockdowns in towns and cities would not be enough and they should be imposed on regions – which would have a larger economic impact than those seen last year.

There were several reports last year of people leaving higher tier areas to enjoy freedoms in areas with low or no restrictions just miles away.

The warnings came as: 

No 10 urged those deliberating over whether to be vaccinated to ‘think of others’ but refused to say whether the next stage of unlocking would go ahead as planned.

Downing Street also confirmed that the Prime Minister’s plan to announce the end of social distancing measures like the one-metre rule and masks in shops was likely to be delayed while scientists analysed the scale of the threat posed by the new strain.

Mark Harper, chairman of the 70-strong Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, said: ‘It is concerning to hear the Government is entertaining the delay of the June 21 unlocking – causing massive problems for many people’s livelihoods – because some people won’t have a jab.

‘Wider society’s fate can’t be sealed by the actions of a small group of people.’

Tory former minister Conor Burns said: ‘As a nation we have tolerated with generally good humour the most profound curtailment of our freedoms in peacetime for the greater good. It wouldn’t be right to do it again for those who have been offered a vaccine and have freely chosen not to take it, fully aware of the risks.’

Simon Clarke, another former minister, said: ‘It’s vital people take the vaccine when offered. Our wider society should not be held back from recovering our freedoms by those who choose not to protect themselves and others.’

Fellow Tory Marcus Fysh said: ‘It is not reasonable to delay complete release from restrictions domestically on June 21. The vast majority are vaccinated, the vaccines work, and the rest now have a vanishingly small risk of harm. If people don’t want to be vaccinated it is not up to society to shield them.’

Mr Hancock voiced his own frustration at the reluctance of some to have the jab: ‘The majority of people in hospital [in Bolton] with coronavirus were eligible for the jab but have chosen not yet to have the jab and have ended up in hospital, some of them in intensive care.

‘Vaccines save lives. They protect you, they protect your loved ones and they will help us all get out of this pandemic.’

Mr Johnson stunned MPs and businesses on Friday night by warning that the Indian variant posed a ‘real risk of disruption’ to the timetable out of lockdown.

Asked yesterday whether the lockdown would still end as planned on June 21, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said: ‘We are not at a point where we can make a definitive judgment.’

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng struck a more upbeat tone, saying it remained ‘very likely’ that all restrictions would be lifted on June 21 as ‘the vaccines are working’.

Professor Graham Medley, the Government’s chief pandemic modeller, also sounded hopeful, saying it was still ‘odds on’ that the June timetable would be met.

But one government source told ITV News the chance of all restrictions being lifted then was now ‘close to nil’. 

Heat maps of where the Indian variant has become most common (left) and where vaccine uptake is lowest (right) show that the same areas are doing badly on both counts – the North West, the Midlands and London. These are the most urban and most populated parts of the country, which are known to be worse affected by outbreaks and have been throughout the pandemic

Hancock says India variant poses ‘real risk’ but vaccines can cope 

Matt Hancock said the Indian variant poses a ‘real risk’ but current vaccines do appear to offer protection. 

In a statement to the Commons Monday evening, the Health Secretary said 2,323 cases of B.1617.2 had now been confirmed in the UK – 483 in Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen.

But Mr Hancock said the strain did not appear to be ‘penetrating’ vulnerable older groups that have been vaccinated. 

He appealed for people to take up the offer of a vaccine saying it ‘will help us all get out of this pandemic’.

The Health Secretary said: ‘It has been really heartening, I am sure the whole House will agree, to see the videos that have been published over the weekend of people queuing up to get the jab.

‘To anyone who feels hesitant, not just in Bolton or Blackburn, but to anyone who feels hesitant about getting the vaccine right across the country, just look at what is happening in Bolton Hospital where the majority of people in hospital with coronavirus were eligible for the jab but have chosen not yet to have the jab and have ended up in hospital – some of them in intensive care.

‘Vaccines save lives, they protect you, they protect your loved ones and they will help us all get out of this pandemic.’

What can people in England do from May 17? 

Can people come over to my house again?

Yes. Up to six people from multiple households or an unlimited number of people from two households will be allowed to visit you inside your house again.

Can people stay over at my house again?

Yes. People from outside your household will be allowed to stay overnight, as long as you stick to within the rule of six or two households.

Can I still meet people outside?

Yes. You will now be able to meet in groups of up to 30 people outside. Bigger groups will be illegal. Until May 17, you can still only meet outside in groups of six.

A member of bar staff wearing a face masks serves drink in a pub in East London in July 2020

Can I hug my friends and family again?

Yes. The Government has said you can hug ‘close friends and family’ from outside your own household – for the first time since the pandemic began in March 2020.

However, people are being urged to be ‘exercise their own personal judgement in line with the risks.’ There is no legal definition on who ‘close friends and family’ are.  

The Government also said wider social distancing rules will remain in place in adult social care, medical, retail, hospitality and business settings.

Can you sit inside a pub again?

Yes, indoor hospitality will resume – so you can sit inside a pub or restaurant with people from other households, as long as the rule of six (or two households) is met.

Will there be a substantial meal or curfew requirement for pubs?

No. As with step two on April 12, venues will not have to serve a substantial meal with alcoholic drinks; nor will there be a curfew.

An audience sit at the Pavilion theatre in Weymouth for a pantomime in December last year

Will you be able to stand at the bar?

No. Customers will still have to order, eat and drink while seated at a hospitality venue – even though they will now be allowed inside.

Will indoor entertainment venues now be allowed to reopen?

Yes. Cinemas, theatres, museums and indoor children’s play areas will all be allowed to reopen, but must follow guidelines on social distancing and face masks.

Concert halls, conference centres and sports stadia will also be allowed to reopen, with larger events in all venues able to resume with capacity limits (see below). 

Will venues face capacity limits?

Yes. Larger performances and sporting events will be capped in indoor venues with a capacity of 1,000 people or half-full, whichever is a lower number. For outdoor venues the cap will be 4,000 people or half-full – again, whichever is lower.

In the largest outdoor seated venues, where crowds can be spread out, up to 10,000 people will be able to attend – or a quarter-full, whichever is lower.

Football fans at Wembley Stadium at a pilot event for the FA Cup semi-final last month 

Will social distancing and face masks rules remain for now?

Yes. The one-metre (3ft) rule remains in place in public settings such as pubs, shops and restaurants. You should wear a face mask when walking around these places.

What about children wearing masks in schools?

Secondary school children will no longer have to wear face masks in classrooms and corridors from May 17. However, those aged 11 and above will still be required to wear the masks in public settings such as shops, unless they have a medical exemption.

Ministers said infection rates among students and staff continue to decrease in line with wider community transmission, but twice weekly home testing will remain. 

Will students be able to attend university lectures in person again?

Yes. All university students in England can return to campus next week for in-person teaching. They will be expected to get tested for Covid-19 twice a week.

Most students, apart from those on critical courses, were told not to travel back to term-time accommodation as part of the third national lockdown in January.

Students on practical courses, who require specialist equipment and facilities, began returning to face-to-face teaching on March 8. But it is estimated that about half of university students have not been eligible to return to in-person lessons.

Cinema-goers in their seats for a film at the Odeon Leicester Square in London last August

Can I go on holiday abroad again?

Yes, but with many restrictions. Last Friday, the UK Government cleared just 12 destinations for quarantine-free tourist trips for Britons from May 17.

However, many of the destinations are remote islands or have very strict entry measures or blanket bans on UK tourists, further reducing the list of options.

Portugal and Gibraltar are the only countries on the ‘green list‘ that most Britons will realistically be able to visit for a warm weather holiday this month.

You can technically also go on holiday to ‘amber list’ and ‘red list’ countries again too, but you will need to complete a period of quarantine as follows:

For amber list, you must quarantine at home for ten days on your return and take a PCR test on days two and eight – as well as a lateral flow test before the return flight.

Or there is an alternative option that you could pay for an additional ‘Test to Release’ on day five to end self-isolation early. There is also a chance the country turns red.

Those returning from a red list country must stay in a government-approved quarantine hotel for 11 nights upon their return at a cost of £1,750.

Will there be a new limit on wedding numbers?

Yes. Up to 30 people will now be able to attend weddings. This limit will also apply to other types of significant life events including bar mitzvahs and christenings.

Will funerals also now be limited to 30 people?

No. There will now be no limit of the number of mourners at funerals, although the venue must operate in a socially distanced way and within capacity guidelines.

Travellers arrive at London Heathrow Airport on May 3. Non-essential travel is set to reopen

Can you stay overnight somewhere with people from another family?

Yes. The rest of the accommodation sector will now reopen, including hotels, hostels and B&Bs – and people from different households can share the same room.

Up until May 17, if you want to stay at a hotel or self-catering accommodation, you must only do so with members of your own household or support bubble.

Can I go to indoor sport classes now?

Yes. All indoor adult group sports and exercise classes will be allowed again, five weeks after gyms were allowed to reopen under step two on April 12.

Will closed parts of leisure centres now be allowed to reopen?

Yes. Saunas and steam rooms will now be allowed to reopen, following on from swimming pools and gyms on April 12.

There will be no more limits on mourners at funerals. Above: File picture of a funeral last July

Will there be limits on numbers in support groups?

Yes. The Government has said 30 people will now be able to attend a support group or parent and child group. The limit does not include children aged under five.

Will restrictions on care home visiting be changed?

Yes. Care home visiting will be eased further, with residents able to have up to five named visitors and more freedom to make ‘low risk visits’ out of the home.

Will the guidance on working from home change?

No. People are still being advised to ‘continue to work from home where they can’.

Hugs with family and friends will be allowed again from May 17 (file picture posed by models)

What is the exact time that the rules change on May 17?

Unconfirmed. This is not yet clear, but the April 12 rule change towards step two came in at midnight, so it is likely this will be the same for May 18.

Are there businesses that still cannot reopen?

Yes. Nightclubs are the only businesses that must remain shut until at least June 21.

Is there a confirmed date for when all Covid rules will cease?

Not yet. The Government hopes that on June 21 it will be able to drop all legal limits on social contact, but this will be confirmed nearer the time.

Before this date, the Government will complete a review of social distancing and other long-term measures such as face masks and guidance on working from home.

All university students in England can return to campus next week for in-person teaching (file)

Why can we now move into Step 3 on May 17?

The Government has set four tests to further ease restrictions, which have now been met. These are that:

  • The vaccine deployment programme continues successfully;
  • Evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated;
  • Infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS;
  • Assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new variants of concern.

It also comes after the UK Chief Medical Officers confirmed this morning that the UK Covid-19 alert level should move from level four to level three.


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