A senior government minister has insisted that it is too early to speculate whether the final step out of lockdown will go ahead as planned on 21 junio, as industry bodies said the hospitality sector needed advance notice if any “lingering restrictions” were to remain.
The vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, urged people to wait another two weeks to find out whether the roadmap date for the lifting of all legal limits can be adhered to, also prompting calls for the government to provide “advance notice” of any “lingering” measures to struggling businesses.
He refused to deny that restrictions such as mask-wearing and home working might stay in place.
Ministers are grappling with whether rise in cases and further spread of the Covid variant discovered in India could throw Boris Johnson’s roadmap off-track. Despite the progress of the vaccination programme, advisers are unsure to what extent the new infections – which are at levels last seen at the end of March – will translate into hospitalisations and deaths.
An announcement about the 21 June reopening will be made on 14 junio, but Zahawi refused twice to rule out the possibility that the planned unlocking could be tweaked. “We have to look at the data and we will share that with the country,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
“It would be completely wrong for me to now speculate. There are many people watching your programme, in jobs and businesses, who want to basically follow the exact direction the government is giving them whilst taking personal responsibility.
“At the moment, we don’t have enough data. There are some parts of the country where there’s literally no B.1.617.2 [thee variant first found in India] and everything is pretty stable, in other parts of the country it is beginning to overtake the B117 vairant – the Kent variant.
“We have to look in the next couple of weeks and then we’ll share that with the country.”
The minister also insisted the government “absolutely” threw a protective ring around care homes – despite Dominic Cummings’ claim this week that the health secretary had lied when he said all hospital patients were tested before being discharged into them.
Zahawi said Matt Hancock had said only that people “should be tested” and repeatedly told critics: “Hindsight is a wonderful thing.”
If next month’s easing of restrictions is delayed, the British Beer and Pub Association said businesses should be given “advance notice” and “financial compensation”.
Emma McClarkin, the group’s chief executive, said the government should “stick to its roadmap” and stressed: “21 June is absolutely critical to the recovery of the sector. Recovery day only starts when the restrictions are removed.”
Others have urged the government to be cautious in the run-up to 21 junio. Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said staff were “going full pelt” to deal with a backlog of care requirements on waiting lists and so do not have the space for a significant increase in coronavirus patients.
“While it’s great news that the vaccinations are working – and I think that sends us one message in terms of opening up on June 21 – what we mustn’t forget is there are still lots of people who need to be vaccinated, and we know this variant that originated in India is much more transmissible,” Hopson told BBC Breakfast.
“So there is going to be a really difficult decision about how much we open up how quickly, and that’s why we’re calling really clearly this morning – let’s have the best quality of debate about what the trade-offs here are and let’s try, if I may be so bold, to have a rather better quality of evidence-based debate about how quickly we should ease the lockdown measures than perhaps we’ve had in previous phases.”
He also suggested that ministers needed to consider the increased burden on hospitals in UK holiday hotspots in coming months, saying staff at trusts in such areas were “really worried” ahead of summer.
Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, also said it was “too early to be charging ahead” and that 21 June is “very ambitious looking at the national picture”.
She told Sky News that parts of the UK are seeing a “big increase” in cases, agregando: “To avoid more preventable deaths … we really need to be cautious.”
Downing Street said that no decisions had been made and that speculation was premature.