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Boris Johnson has confirmed that lockdown easing will be delayed by four weeks to cope with the surge in Delta variant cases amid fear that hospitalisations could reach the scale of the first peak of the pandemic.
Speaking from Downing Street, the Prime Minister said the next stage of unlocking would now not take place until 19 July at the earliest, after new data revealed the variant is up to 80 percent more transmissible.
He also revealed that hospitalisations across the country were rising, with the number of Covid patients needing hospital care increasing by 50 percent week-on-week in England, and by 61 percent in the North West.
The UK is currently recording its highest number of cases since February at around 8000 cases a day, a figure that is growing by 64 percent week-on-week.
The Prime Minister’s spokesperson said today: “SPI-M modelling suggests if we were to go ahead with step four on Monday there is a possibility of hospitalisations around the peak of the first wave.”
At the peak of the first wave of the virus 20,000 people were in hospital with Covid.
Businesses that will have to close for another four weeks will not get any further financial support following the delay, the government has confirmed.
There will be changes to weddings, however, from 21 June with an unlimited number of guests allowed at ceremonies and receptions, provided social distancing is observed.
Ministers are expected to review the extended restrictions on 28 June, with the possibility that current rules could be lifted on 5 July if the data has significantly improved.
However, it is expected that the next stage of lockdown lifting will not go ahead until 19 July.
The government made the decision to delay the roadmap as test four of its route out of lockdown had not been passed — that the assessment of risk is not fundamentally changed by a new variant of concern.
The other three tests — that the vaccine programme is running successfully; that vaccinations reduce hospitalisations and deaths; and that infection rates do not risk overwhelming the NHS — have been passed.
To cope with the rising number of cases the government will reduce the gap between jabs for the over 40s from the current twelve week wait to eight weeks.
This means that the majority of that age group will have been offered two vaccine doses by mid-July, while all over-18s will have been offered their first dose.
It is expected that two-thirds of adults will have been offered two doses by 19 July, which it is hoped will reduce hospital admissions.
Fresh data from Public Health England has revealed the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 96% effective against hospitalisation after 2 doses, while the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is 92% effective against hospitalisation after 2 doses.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said that while cases are rising thousands of deaths can be prevented if more people get two doses.
“Vaccine effectiveness especially after two doses means thousands of more deaths can be prevented if more people are jabbed,” they said.
“As the chief medical officer said, at some stage we were going to have to live with this virus as we do with flu.
“But when we have effective vaccines and a variant that needs two doses for maximum protection, it is right to allow more time to save lives.”
And asked whether the UK had enough doses to allow for this boost in the rollout, they said there was a “robust supply” of vaccines and that the acceleration was possible because younger people were not being given the AstraZeneca jab.
“The majority of over-40s have had one dose, but not two doses, of AstraZeneca. And because we’re not giving that to younger cohorts, we’ve got scope to shorten the distance between doses to eight weeks,” they said.
“That’s what gives the NHS the ability to accelerate through second doses which are particularly important in addressing the Delta variant.”
Businesses that have to remain closed for another four weeks — including small pubs without beer gardens and nightclubs — will not get any further financial assistance beyond the furlough scheme that runs until September.
This will be a bitter blow to the night time economy industry which warned today that a recent poll found that one in four businesses will close for good within the next month if they do not get more financial support.
Two requests for more financial support from the sector include a five percent VAT reduction to cover alcohol, and an extension of the ban on commercial evictions that runs out at the end of the month.
But a Downing Street spokesperson said that there was already “substantial support” in place for businesses across a number of schemes, including money resting with local authorities.
“We deliberately extended most support well into the autumn because of the known uncertainty,” the spokesperson said.
They also confirmed that there were no plans to extend the ban on evictions, which expired at the end of May.
The 30-guest limit on wedding ceremonies and receptions is set to be removed as of 21 June and replaced with a cap based on the capacity of the venue.
These rules already apply to funerals in England, but will also include wake services as of Monday.
Table service only will be allowed for wedding receptions, with restrictions still in place on dancing and singing indoors.
Legal restrictions on dance floors will only apply to indoor venues, however, with outdoor venues only advised against allowing dancing at such events.
Other large events taking part in the government’s official pilot scheme will also be allowed to go ahead, provided all social distancing requirements are followed.
Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), told PoliticsHome getting no additional financial support would be “catastrophic” for the late night economy.
As of this summer, furlough requires a larger employer contribution, and without any income for 15 months firms are going to struggle to pay that, he explained.
The NTIA was also hoping for an extension to having to pay back Bounce Back Loans and the The Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, which has not happened. “Nightclubs and the night time economy businesses are among the hardest hit sectors. If they were going to be delayed for another four weeks they need that support. They’re on a cliff edge.
“I’m exasperated, disheartened and frustrated and a lot of people are very angry. A lot of people are in disbelief that in the last seven days we’ve moved to go down a path to delay.
“We can’t keep pushing this down the line otherwise there isn’t going to be a sector to come back to.”
Boris Johnson said by being cautious now it was possible to save “many thousands of lives” by vaccinating “millions more people”.
“Even if the link between infection and hospitalisation has been weakened, it hasn’t been severed. We’ve obviously faced a very difficult choice. We can keep going with all of Step Four on to the 21st, even though there is a real possibility that the virus will outrun the vaccines and that thousands more deaths would ensue, that could otherwsie be avoided.
“Or we can give the NHS a few more crucial weeks to get those remaining jabs in the arms of those who need them.”
He said the Delta variant was spreading faster than the third wave, which was predicted in the roadmap which was drawn up back in February.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty stressed the importance of getting two doses of the jab, as it reduces the chances of a symptomatic case of coronavirus by up to 84 percent. Two doses also leads to an 85 to 98 percent reduction in hospitalisation, he said.