Boris Johnson will appeal to the nation to be patient today as he announces that the June 21 easing of lockdown restrictions will be delayed by up to four weeks.
The prime minister will use a press conference in Downing Street this evening to set out the delay as the government attempts to hit its target of offering all adults at least one dose of a vaccination by the end of next month.
A government source said that Johnson views it as the “final stretch” as he seeks to ensure that as many people as possible are protected before lockdown rules are eased. The prime minister has repeatedly argued that the end of restrictions must be “irreversible”.
In an attempt to mitigate criticism he is expected to lift the 30-person limit on weddings and allow for more seated outdoor sporting and cultural events to take place with large crowds.
The four-week delay was signed off by the quad group of senior ministers — Johnson, Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, and Matt Hancock, the health secretary — after a briefing by Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser.
Asked for his views, Sunak is said to have joked that they were already known after they were leaked to a newspaper last week. All four men supported the delay.
Some cabinet ministers and Conservative MPs are concerned that the new deadline of July 19 could slip further if cases and hospital admissions continue to rise. The Times has been told that planners in Whitehall initially considered delays of two or five weeks.
Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, told Times Radio he could not provide an “absolute guarantee” that lockdown restrictions would be eased by the new deadline. Asked if there was confidence that restrictions could be lifted by August, Raab said: “I don’t think there are any absolute guarantees.”
Johnson declined to comment when asked if he would guarantee the new timetable for easing the rules.
One cabinet minister said: “It’s a very odd decision. Why are we maintaining more restrictions this year when we have the vaccine than we did last year without? If new variants emerge we are coming to the point when we just have to live with them.”
They highlighted images of Johnson and G7 leaders gathered closely together at a beach barbecue at the weekend without observing social distancing or wearing masks.
“If world leaders, with all the information at their fingertips, appear to be breaking the rules then other people will learn from them,” the minister said.
Downing Street has insisted that the rules were followed and that the barbecue was Covid secure.
The delay will also mean that the government will have to table new legislation in the Commons to extend the present restrictions.
A government source said it was “absurd” to suggest that the lockdown restrictions would need to be implemented for even longer after the delay. “The restrictions can’t be justified once all the over-50s have been vaccinated,” the source said. “The prime minister sees this as the final stretch and wants people to be patient. We are nearly there, it’s one last haul.”
The UK recorded another 7,490 cases yesterday, a 49 per cent rise on last week, and eight deaths. Nine in ten local authority areas in England experienced a rise in coronavirus rates in the seven days to June 2, according to the new figures.
The whole of Scotland is due to move to level zero, the least severe restrictions, on June 28 but Nicola Sturgeon is expected to give an update on Tuesday.
In Wales, since the middle of last month six people from six households have been able to meet in a pub or restaurant. However, the rules on socialising indoors in private restrict two households to forming an exclusive bubble.
The lockdown rules
Since May 17 England has been at step three of the government’s road map out of lockdown. That means:
• Outdoor gatherings of more than 30 people remain illegal. Indoor gatherings must involve either no more than six people or members of no more than two households.
• While most businesses are now open, places considered the highest risk, such as nightclubs and some entertainment venues, are still closed.
• Pubs and restaurants that serve alcohol must provide table service, and in all hospitality venues any food and drink must be consumed while seated.
• Weddings and wakes can have no more than 30 people attending, although limits on numbers at funerals are dictated by the safe capacity of the venue.
• Sporting events such as football matches, or live performances such as plays and gigs, can have either up to 4,000 attenders outdoors or 1,000 indoors, or half of the normal capacity, whichever is lower.