Britons are being warned to stay “measured and cautious” as lockdown eases today – but a minister has told Sky News that the Indian COVID variant is unlikely to derail plans to end all restrictions in England on 21 June.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng defended the decision to ease the lockdown amid fears the Indian variant, also called B.1.617, could delay England’s final roadmap step.
He said it was “very likely” that England would see all COVID restrictions scrapped on 21 June.
The prime minister’s spokesman also told reporters that the government was not yet a point to make a definitive judgement on whether restrictions would end on 21 June.
Mr Kwarteng’s comments comes as people across England, from today, are again able to enjoy hugs with loved ones, indoor pints and foreign holidays but as Boris Johnson also urged a “heavy dose of caution” due to the threat of the Indian variant.
There have so far been more than 1,300 cases of the Indian variant found in the UK, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Sunday warned it is “becoming the dominant strain” in places such as Bolton, as well as Blackburn.
Mr Kwarteng told Sky News: “Yes, things are opening up but people should have common sense, they should use judgment and I think if we act in a reasonable way, there is no reason to suppose that we can’t reopen the economy entirely on June 21.
“I think there has to be a degree of common sense, a bit of caution and people shouldn’t be running away being too exuberant, I suppose.
“I think we just need to be measured and cautious.”
However, Professor Adam Finn, who sits on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told Sky News that people need to prepared for the roadmap to change because of the “possibility that we’re in for another big wave”.
Asked whether the unlocking next month could still happen despite a growing number of Indian variant cases, Mr Kwarteng said that he “fully” expected the 21 June date would be met, adding: “I think it is very likely to happen.”
He added: “I’ve said the vaccines are working against the Indian variant, I think we’ve got to look at the numbers so we’ve got some flexibility but there is nothing I have seen and nothing the prime minister has seen up to now that suggests we are going to delay that June 21 date.”
As the country moves to stage three of the prime minister‘s roadmap for lifting lockdown restrictions, friends and family will enjoy greater freedom to gather together.
This includes being able to meet outdoors in groups of up to 30 and gathering indoors in groups of up to six, or as two households.
Pubs and restaurants are also once again able to serve customers indoors, while cinemas can reopen, fans can return to sports stadiums, and the ban on foreign holidays is lifted, with people allowed to travel to a limited number of countries on the “green” list.
In addition, the government is now allowing people to choose whether to socially distance with family and friends when they meet up – although ministers have urged people to think carefully about the risks of hugging.
Ian Snowball, the owner of Showtime Bar in Huddersfield, said it was “amazing” to be able to open his doors for those wanting a drink inside.
“It’s incredible – the anticipation and the planning has been amazing,” he said. “We’ve got all the staff here and everyone’s happy. It’s nice to be inside, warm.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has not ruled out imposing local lockdown restrictions in places worst affected by the Indian variant of coronavirus.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said he feared restrictions may have to be reversed if COVID-19 vaccines offered to people did not provide the level of protection required.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think we will see an increase of cases and infections over the coming weeks as some of the restrictions are lifted, but I think the key question is whether we have decoupled increased transmission and number of people who do get infected from the number of people that get ill and need to go into hospital or with long COVID.
“If we’ve decoupled them, then I think the country can cope with a marginal degree of an increase in transmission.
“We’re at this point where we’ve lifted restrictions, and yet we don’t have that full amount of information – I think it is reasonable to lift them today, but I do believe all of us need to be really, really careful.”
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said there were “concerns” there were small numbers of older people who were yet to take up an offer of a vaccine.
He told Times Radio: “The biggest risk comes from, if there are large numbers of older people who are unvaccinated.”
Professor Graham Medley, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), told the LBC radio channel the chances of the 21 June date being delayed were “well less than 50%” but added it was “uncertain”.
He said: “There has always been a risk that if we have another wave of infection between now and the end of the vaccination programme that we will end up with large numbers of people in hospital.
“This new variant does seem to be more transmissible, and so it’s just increased that risk a bit.”
Asked about the 21 June plans possibly being delayed, Professor Adam Finn said there was “real uncertainty” over the lockdown roadmap.
“That’s been the story all the way through, that things don’t always turn out the way you expect,” he told Sky News.
“You lay down plans and then something changes, and I think we’re still in a place where that is perfectly likely to happen.
“I really hope that these current concerns around this variant evaporate, that everything goes to plan, but I think we just have to accept the possibility that we’re in for another big wave and that we will have to change what we’re doing.
“That’s not good news for people in businesses I know, but it’s the reality… We’re faced with real uncertainty here.”