Ministers are “absolutely open” to delaying the final stage of lockdown easing on June 21, Matt Hancock said yesterday, as he said it was still too soon to say whether it was safe to relax restrictions further.
The health secretary said the emergence of the Indian variant, which has become dominant in Britain, had made the “calculation” on whether to proceed with unlocking this month “more difficult”. He said that the latest scientific evidence suggested that it was 40 per cent more transmissible than the Kent strain.
But he conceded that while Covid cases were rising in England this had not so far been followed by a similar rise in hospital admissions because of the vaccine.
Nevertheless he stressed that June 21 was a “not before” date for lifting all restrictions and that it was only “pencilled in” as the next step out of lockdown.
In previous internal government discussions on lockdowns Hancock and the Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove have tended to take the most cautious approach.
This time Boris Johnson is understood to be more in favour of relaxing some, if not all, of the remaining restrictions on the evidence so far.
Downing Street has repeatedly said that it was still waiting for further data but Johnson had seen nothing so far to justify a rethink.
Speaking on Times Radio Hancock described the decision as a “tricky call”, saying: “The goal is that it’s irreversible and we set that out when we set out the road map.
“The question really is how cautious [we should be]. We were careful in the run-up to step three and we took the decision to go ahead. And I think with hindsight that was the right decision. And so you need caution but not an abundance of caution because we all want to get back to normal and get back to the things that we love.”
Speaking to the BBC he was pressed on whether the June 21 removal of restrictions could be postponed if the Indian variant data “gets bad”.
He said: “We are absolutely open to doing that if that’s what needs to happen.
“We said in the road map that June 21 is the date by which we would not take step four before that date and that we would look at the data.
“That is exactly what we are doing, so the road map was set up in order to be able to take these sort of changes into account.”
He added that he “wouldn’t rule out” measures such as wearing face coverings in public areas and working from home where possible continuing in the long term.
“The way we are looking at this is step four involves the removal of the remaining social restrictions like the rule of six and some of the business closures which are still there,” he said.
“And separately we have a piece of work on what the social distancing rules should be after that.”
Labour signalled that it could support some restrictions remaining in place as long as they were borne out by evidence.
The shadow education secretary, Kate Green, told Sky News: “I would say if we have to maintain some protective measures beyond June 21, that is what the government should do, but I think it is really important that it’s a decision taken on the basis of the data.”
Of the 12,431 Indian variant cases so far confirmed in the UK, 10,797 are in England, 1,511 in Scotland, 97 in Wales and 26 in Northern Ireland.
On Friday the UK recorded its highest number of new confirmed coronavirus cases — 6,238 — since late March, according to official figures, although Saturday’s number was down slightly at 5,765 lab-confirmed cases.
Dame Anne Johnson, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London and president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said that reopening would be a “very finely judged decision” and that society will need to learn to live with coronavirus. Describing the incoming data this week as “absolutely critical”, she told Sky News: “We certainly don’t want to go on delaying forever. It’s going to be a very finely judged decision when we see these results.”