‘Arguments on both sides’: ministers ponder delaying June 21 lockdown end
- Credit: PA
The further easing of coronavirus restrictions on June 21 could be delayed, health secretary Matt Hancock confirmed.
But a Norfolk-based virus expert believes, even if so-called 'freedom day' is delayed, there is reason to be positive and all restrictions will be lifted in the near future.
Ministers are "absolutely open" to delaying the June 21 unlocking if the Indian variant worsens the country's coronavirus recovery prospects, the health secretary said.
Matt Hancock, in what will be viewed as the clearest indication yet that the target date for lifting all restrictions could slip, stressed that June 21 was a "not before" date and that it was only "pencilled in" as the next step out of lockdown.
The minister also implied that social distancing could continue beyond the final stage of the prime minister's road map.
The comments come as Covid-19 cases have continued to surge in the UK amid reports Prime Minister Boris Johnson is considering delaying freedom day by at least two weeks in order to allow more people to be fully vaccinated against the Indian variant.
A further 5,765 lab-confirmed cases of Covid were recorded on Saturday, following the UK recording its highest number of new confirmed coronavirus cases - 6,238 - since late March on Friday.
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The Delta variant first seen in India was about 40pc more transmissible than the Alpha (Kent) strain, said Mr Hancock.
But he added that hospitalisations were "broadly flat" which meant Covid vaccines were working.
He said: "We said in the road map that June 21 is the date by which we would not take Step 4 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 sorts of changes into account."
Professor Paul Hunter, from University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School, said he “could see both sides of the argument” over further easing on June 21.
He said although Covid cases were increasing hospitalisations were not rising at the same rate and we are “quite close” to the point where he felt the full lifting of restrictions should go ahead.
He said: “We are not anywhere near as bad a position as we were back in December and January because, despite case numbers shooting up, the Indian variant has been doubling every week to 10 days since early April, hospitalisations have not been doing the same.
“They have been rising but not as much as you’d expect. In the seven day rolling mean in England, hospitalisations have increased about four per cent while cases have increased by 48pc.”
He added: “Clearly there are issues with long Covid, but on the other hand it doesn’t look like it is going to be putting an acute pressure on the health service therefore we should go ahead,” he said.
“At some point we have to put all these restrictions behind us and I think we are quite close to that point now but I’d like another week's data to be sure.”
Parts of the region have been seeing rising numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases, though four of Norfolk’s seven areas also recorded reduced rates in Public Health England figures for the seven days up to May 31.
The biggest rise was seen in Great Yarmouth where the number of confirmed cases rose by 153pc to 10.1 cases per 100,000 over the week-long period.
East Suffolk, which includes Lowestoft, North Norfolk and South Norfolk also saw increases over the seven day period.
Mr Hancock said he expected "around three fifths" of all adults to have been fully-vaccinated within the coming fortnight, with 52pc currently double-jabbed.
The health secretary said he "wouldn't rule out" measures such as wearing face coverings in public settings and working from home where possible continuing in the long term.
He also said the Government "haven't yet set out the approach to social distancing after Step 4" and that plans were currently being worked up with scientific advisers about how to proceed safely.
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