June 21: Cabinet members split on ‘Freedom Day’ restrictions as Boris Johnson faces crunch decision

Calls to delay ‘freedom day’ marking the end of lockdown have split the Cabinet as evidence mounts that Covid jabs are keeping Britons out of hospital.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock yesterday told MPs that just three fully vaccinated people have been admitted to hospital because of the Indian variant.

He pledged that freedoms would be restored ‘soon’, but stressed it was ‘too early’ to assess if the end of lockdown will go ahead as planned on June 21. 

He did not deny that ministers are considering a devastating delay to the opening up of the economy.

Despite vaccine success, some ministers and officials have been spooked by a surge in Covid cases – up by more than 50 per cent in the last week. 

Whitehall sources said contingency plans are being drawn up for a possible ‘short’ delay to give scientists more time to consider data and allow the NHS to carry out more vaccinations.

The debate has split the Cabinet, with Mr Hancock and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove urging caution, while others, including Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, are warning Boris Johnson he must consider the impact on the economy of extending restrictions into the summer. 

One Cabinet source said: ‘The evidence is clear that vaccinations are severing the link between infections and hospitalisations.

Despite vaccine success, some ministers and officials have been spooked by a surge in Covid cases – up by more than 50 per cent in the last week. Pictured: Boris Johnson receives his jab

Despite vaccine success, some ministers and officials have been spooked by a surge in Covid cases – up by more than 50 per cent in the last week. Pictured: Boris Johnson receives his jab

Despite vaccine success, some ministers and officials have been spooked by a surge in Covid cases – up by more than 50 per cent in the last week. Pictured: Boris Johnson receives his jab

Health Secretary Matt Hancock

Health Secretary Matt Hancock

Cabinet minister Michael Gove

Cabinet minister Michael Gove

The debate has split the Cabinet, with Mr Hancock and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove urging caution

‘Most of the cases now are among teenagers, who are not going to get seriously ill. The health lobby will always want more data but we have enough now to get on with it.’

But another insider said: ‘No decisions have been taken but it is looking pretty challenging to go ahead on June 21. I think people are leaning towards a short delay.

‘It would be a nightmare for the sectors affected, but – having said it is all about data not dates – it is difficult to go ahead with a reopening when the data is pointing the wrong way.’

In the latest development in the fight against coronavirus:

  • The UK’s Covid cases today rose by 68% with 5,683 positive tests, with the Indian variant now dominant in 200 areas of England;
  • All adults aged 25 and over will be invited to book their coronavirus vaccine appointment from tomorrow morning; 
  • Tony Blair said fully-vaccinated Britons should be given more freedom to travel abroad in a bid to boost the jabs take-up;
  • It emerged that ministers downgraded Portugal from the green travel list to amber after just 1.5 per cent of arrivals from the country tested positive for Covid; 
  • Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the Commons foreign affairs committee, said there were ‘strong suggestions’ that Covid-19 leaked from a laboratory in China; 
  • People looking for love online will be able to see if their potential match has been vaccinated in a government bid to increase uptake of the jab; 
  • Jab-maker Moderna is applying for permission for its vaccine to be used on 12 to 17-year-olds in Europe.

The Prime Minister is due to announce next Monday if the Government will press ahead with the fourth and final step in the roadmap out of lockdown.

This would scrap the one-metre social distancing rule and lift caps on the number of people who can meet indoors or outdoors.

Ministers are also set to rule on whether mask wearing should continue and if formal advice to work from home should end.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is warning Boris Johnson he must consider the impact on the economy of extending restrictions into the summer

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is warning Boris Johnson he must consider the impact on the economy of extending restrictions into the summer

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is warning Boris Johnson he must consider the impact on the economy of extending restrictions into the summer

Business leaders Tory MPs warned any delay from June 21 would be devastating and could see thousands of pubs and restaurants go to the wall. Pictured: Transport Secretary Grant Shapps

Business leaders Tory MPs warned any delay from June 21 would be devastating and could see thousands of pubs and restaurants go to the wall. Pictured: Transport Secretary Grant Shapps

Business leaders Tory MPs warned any delay from June 21 would be devastating and could see thousands of pubs and restaurants go to the wall. Pictured: Transport Secretary Grant Shapps

Downing Street sources said the ‘finely balanced’ decision would be taken at the end of this week.

Business leaders and Tory MPs warned last night that any delay from June 21 would be devastating and could see thousands of pubs and restaurants go to the wall.

Ministers fear a delay could also wreck summer plans, with thousands of weddings cancelled, theatre openings put back and key events like the Wimbledon tennis tournament and music festivals facing crowd restrictions. 

The row comes as people aged 25 to 30 will be offered their first jab from today as ministers try to step up the vaccination programme.

In other developments, official figures showed just one Covid-related death in the UK recorded yesterday and Mr Hancock all but ruled out the introduction of Covid passports for domestic use, noting that they have already been dropped in Israel, which pioneered them.

Experts and politicians have noted that despite the sharp increase in Covid cases due to the Indian variant in recent weeks this has not translated into hospitalisations (pictured) or deaths. Just one death was recorded today

Experts and politicians have noted that despite the sharp increase in Covid cases due to the Indian variant in recent weeks this has not translated into hospitalisations (pictured) or deaths. Just one death was recorded today

Experts and politicians have noted that despite the sharp increase in Covid cases due to the Indian variant in recent weeks this has not translated into hospitalisations (pictured) or deaths. Just one death was recorded today

British tourists yesterday scrambled to leave Portugal ahead of its move to the travel amber list this morning while the UK’s daily Covid cases rose to 5,683, with nearly three-quarters of local areas recording week-on-week increases – the highest proportion since January 6.

Mr Hancock yesterday told MPs the Indian or Delta variant was now thought to be at least 40 per cent more transmissible than the Kent or Alpha variant.

He said it now accounted for the ‘vast majority’ of new cases, but evidence from Bolton suggested vaccines were working. 

Of the 12,383 UK cases of the Indian variant, 126 have been admitted to hospital. Of these, just three had been fully vaccinated. 

Microbiologist Professor Ravi Gupta, who sits on a sub-group of the Sage committee, said ‘a few more weeks rather than months’ may be needed before a full exit from lockdown.

Former chief scientist Professor David King also called for a delay, saying there was ‘evidence of another wave appearing’.

But former health minister Steve Brine warned there was a growing perception that ministers were ‘writing Covid a blank cheque and just continually delaying’.

Kate Nicholls, of industry group UK Hospitality, said a delay to the unlocking would result in ‘business failures and insolvencies very quickly’. 

She warned: ‘You are going to have long Covid for the economy if you are not very careful.’

The PM’s spokesman said data on hospital cases over the next few days would be ‘crucial’ to the final decision. 

Ministers have considered a compromise plan, which would see some restrictions lifted on June 21 while others remain in place.

But multiple sources said the Government was more likely to delay the whole package than try to split it up. 

The devastating cost of diverting from the roadmap

Analysis by Mario Ledwith

When it was unveiled in February, the PM’s roadmap out of lockdown promised to ‘restore freedoms sustainably, equitably and as quickly as possible’.

Announcing the plan, Boris Johnson said: ‘We cannot persist indefinitely with restrictions that debilitate our economy, our physical and mental wellbeing, and the life-chances of our children.’

The roadmap set out a plan to end legal limits on social contact by June 21.

The ultimate decision will be based on four tests, including the success of the vaccine rollout, current pressure on the NHS and the risk posed by new variants.

As ministers inch closer to making the call on whether to stick to the roadmap, we look at what rules could finally be lifted – and the impact if they are not.

ONE-METRE RULE

Only last week, Mr Johnson said there was a ‘good chance’ the Government could ditch its ‘one-metre plus’ social distancing guidance.

If the advice remains in place, there will still be significant impacts on everyday life.

If the 'one-metre rule' advice remains in place, there will still be significant impacts on everyday life

If the 'one-metre rule' advice remains in place, there will still be significant impacts on everyday life

If the ‘one-metre rule’ advice remains in place, there will still be significant impacts on everyday life

The advice would make it difficult for the Government to overturn its guidance that everyone who can work from home must do so, while posing a further obstacle to the retail and hospitality sectors. 

It could also prevent an end to enforced table service at pubs and bars. Kate Nicholls, of UK Hospitality, said lifting the one-metre rule is ‘vital’ for firms to operate viably.

LIMITS ON WEDDINGS

Failure to lift restrictions will mean that those getting married will have to keep the number of attendees at the current limit of 30.

Couples risk losing tens of thousands of pounds, while businesses already on the brink have warned that failure to allow big ceremonies to go ahead will be disastrous.

Couples risk losing tens of thousands of pounds, while businesses already on the brink have warned that failure to allow big ceremonies to go ahead will be disastrous

Couples risk losing tens of thousands of pounds, while businesses already on the brink have warned that failure to allow big ceremonies to go ahead will be disastrous

Couples risk losing tens of thousands of pounds, while businesses already on the brink have warned that failure to allow big ceremonies to go ahead will be disastrous

Industry body the UK Weddings Taskforce warned the wedding sector faces estimated revenue losses of more than £1.3billion.

RULE OF SIX (INSIDE)

Continuing to limit indoor gatherings to six people or two households would curtail sections of the hospitality sector reliant on large- scale events.

It would also prove an impediment to larger families who have spent months waiting for the opportunity to meet indoors, rather than in gardens.

Continuing to limit indoor gatherings to six people or two households would curtail sections of the hospitality sector reliant on large- scale events

Continuing to limit indoor gatherings to six people or two households would curtail sections of the hospitality sector reliant on large- scale events

Continuing to limit indoor gatherings to six people or two households would curtail sections of the hospitality sector reliant on large- scale events

Ministers have not dismissed the possibility of ditching the rule of six while keeping social distancing guidance in place, due to the higher risk of transmission inside.

UK Hospitality has predicted that a two-week delay to easing restrictions could cost the industry £1.5billion. Pub retailer Greene King has warned it would lose £1million during every England football game that takes place without the easing of the rules.

RULE OF 30 (OUTSIDE)

The hospitality sector is once again likely to bear the brunt of the refusal to scrap the 30-person cap on out- door gatherings.

The improving summer weather and lifting of restrictions was expected to coincide with a wave of large-scale gatherings that may now have to be cancelled.

NIGHTCLUBS

Already on their knees after being hit hardest of all by Covid restrictions, an extended ban could be a fatal blow for the country’s nightclubs and indoor music venues.

A recent report found that clubs, which have been closed for 15 months, have already made 51 per cent of staff redundant.

The Night Time Industries Association, which represents nightclubs and other venues, has warned MPs that venues are facing an estimated £2.5billion rent crisis.

LARGE EVENTS

Failure to give the green light to capacity crowds could prove a hammer blow to the music festival sector, which is worth £1.1billion.

It is also likely to stand in the way of the UK’s summer of sport, with the European Football Championship the most high-profile victim. 

Failure to give the green light to capacity crowds could prove a hammer blow to the music festival sector, which is worth £1.1billion. Pictured: Dua Lipa performs at the 2021 BRIT Awards

Failure to give the green light to capacity crowds could prove a hammer blow to the music festival sector, which is worth £1.1billion. Pictured: Dua Lipa performs at the 2021 BRIT Awards

Failure to give the green light to capacity crowds could prove a hammer blow to the music festival sector, which is worth £1.1billion. Pictured: Dua Lipa performs at the 2021 BRIT Awards

The tournament’s semi-finals and final are being played at Wembley and limits could dash hopes of seeing the stadium filled with cheering England fans.

Just 15 people out of 60,000 tested positive for Covid at nine trial events staged by the Government, including the FA Cup Final and Brit Awards last month.

FACE MASKS

At present, you can be fined up to £200 for failing to wear a mask in indoor areas such as shops or on public transport, unless they are exempt. 

Last month, the Government dropped a requirement for schoolchildren to wear masks amid concerns they were affecting learning.

Ministers, including Health Secretary Matt Hancock, have said that restrictions over wearing masks could be kept after freedom day

Ministers, including Health Secretary Matt Hancock, have said that restrictions over wearing masks could be kept after freedom day

Ministers, including Health Secretary Matt Hancock, have said that restrictions over wearing masks could be kept after freedom day

But ministers, including Health Secretary Matt Hancock, have said that restrictions over wearing masks could be kept after freedom day.

Surveys have shown people are largely in favour of retaining indoor mask-wearing, while studies show they can be successful at reducing transmission when combined with other measures.

UK’s Covid cases spike by 68% with 5,683 positive tests with Indian variant now dominant in 200 areas of England  

ByStephen Matthews Health Editorand Sam Blanchard Deputy Health Editorand Luke Andrews Health Reporter For Mailonline 

Britain recorded another 5,683 positive coronavirus tests today in a 68 per cent spike on last Monday’s count as separate data showed the Indian variant has now taken over in two thirds of areas in England.

Hospital admissions have crept up by 16 per cent, with 154 infected people admitted on June 1 — the most recent day figures area available for. One more death was added to the toll, the same amount as last Monday.  

But figures on hospitalisations and fatalities lag behind cases because it can take infected patients several weeks to fall severely ill, so a rise in positive tests now could make the other numbers increase in the coming weeks.

MailOnline analysis today also showed the Indian ‘Delta’ variant is now dominant in more than 200 of England’s 300-plus council areas, compared to the 102 authorities it had taken over the week before. 

Bolton and Blackburn remain the country’s hotspots but cases are rising fast in other areas, with numbers doubling or tripling in Birmingham, Bury and Salford.

Despite the surging cases and growing threat of the Indian strain, Boris Johnson today insisted ‘there still remains nothing in the data’ to mean June 21’s ‘Freedom Day’ has to be pushed back. His official spokesperson said No10 ‘always expected’ infection numbers to rise when lockdown rules were lifted in May. 

He added that ministers will ‘look very closely at the data over this coming week’ to check hospitals aren’t being crippled again, before pressing ahead with any decision on June 21. 

Boris Johnson (left, pictured today campaigning in Chesham) will 'look very closely at the data over this coming week', his spokesman said

Boris Johnson (left, pictured today campaigning in Chesham) will 'look very closely at the data over this coming week', his spokesman said

Sir David King today urged ministers to announce a delay to easings 'right away' because hospitalisations had risen

Sir David King today urged ministers to announce a delay to easings 'right away' because hospitalisations had risen

Boris Johnson (left, pictured today) will ‘look very closely at the data over this coming week’, his spokesman said. Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser, urged ministers to delay lockdown easings ‘right away’ because hospitalisations had risen

Meanwhile, Matt Hancock said it was too early to say whether England’s remaining coronavirus restrictions will be lifted on June 21. But the Health Secretary — who revealed over-25s will be able to book vaccines from tomorrow — said he was confident ‘one day soon, freedom will return’. 

No10’s unchanged position came amid growing calls for June 21’s lockdown-ending to be postponed, with Downing Street’s former chief scientific adviser today saying the Indian variant meant restrictions should continue for a few more weeks and jabs be rolled out to teenagers as soon as possible.

Sir David King, who held Sir Patrick Vallance’s role for eight years before stepping down in 2008, said the data was ‘in now’ to show plans to ease restrictions must be pushed back ‘right away’. He said Covid hospitalisations were ‘slowly rising’. 

He added: ‘I’m very reluctant to say that we should not go out of lockdown on June 21 but I think the figures are in now, and it will be wise for the Government to announce right away a delay in opening, just so that we can all plan for the post June 21 period.’

Asked for how long, he said: ‘I would give a few weeks’ delay and see how the figures are emerging. So, I don’t know how long. As the Prime Minister has said, it’s data, not dates, that we should be governed by, and that’s response as well.’

Meanwhile, another Government adviser said delaying the June 21 lockdown by a few weeks would be the best way of preventing another full-blown lockdown. 

Professor Ravi Gupta, a member of NERVTAG, told BBC Breakfast: ‘I think that to go completely back to normal may not be in everyone’s best interests. We want this to be the last lockdown that we ever go into, and we do not want to go into a reverse situation which would be much more damaging to the economy, people’s businesses and long-term welfare.’

Mr Johnson’s spokesman said today: ‘There still remains that there is nothing in the data currently to suggest Step Four can’t go ahead at the earliest date. But we do need to look very closely at the data over this coming week.’

The spokesman continued that this week ‘will be crucial to decide and really to get a sense of the data, particularly on hospitalisations and whether or not the excellent vaccine rollout programme has sufficiently severed that link between the increase in cases, which we always expected to happen, particularly after Step Three, and that subsequently leading to hospitalisations and deaths’.

Asked if there is evidence of a third wave, the spokesman said: ‘We can see that the cases are rising in the UK, that is both due to the increased transmissibility of the Delta (Indian) variant, and to a certain extent the opening up of measures taken in Step Three.’ 

Indian Covid variant is now dominant in 200 areas

The Indian ‘Delta’ Covid variant is now dominant in 201 authorities in England, data showed today as infections begin to rise in more parts of Britain than at any point since the peak of the second wave in early January. 

Surveillance data showed the mutant strain was responsible for more than half of infections in two thirds of England over the two weeks to May 29, after spreading from hotspots in the North West and London.

This was double the number the previous week, when it was dominant in 102 areas, and eight times more than at the start of May when it was the main strain in just 23 areas. 

The ‘Delta’ variant — dubbed B.1.617.2 — was also spotted in 272 of 317 council areas in England, or more than 85 per cent of the country.

It was behind 10,477 infections over the 14-day period. For comparison, the previously dominant Kent variant was blamed for just 3,171 infections in the same time, fewer than a third of those blamed on the Indian variant. 

Bolton was battling the biggest outbreak of the strain over the two weeks to May 29, the latest data available, after detecting 1,674 cases.

Its neighbour Blackburn with Darwen was suffering the second biggest outbreak, after recording 813 cases, followed by Manchester, 493 cases, and Bedford, 451 cases. Indian variant infections also surged in Birmingham, doubling from the previous week to 151, Salford, tripled to 233, and Bury, more than doubled to 199. 

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Britain’s mammoth vaccination rollout has reached more than three-quarters of adults but scientists have warned that a third wave triggered by a highly transmissible variant could cripple the NHS once again. 

SAGE models cautioned Covid hospital admissions could pass 5,000 per day in August if the Indian variant is 40 per cent more transmissible than the Kent strain, which Matt Hancock yesterday suggested it was.

The Health Secretary today said he was ‘open’ to the idea of extending social distancing but that it was still too soon to tell whether it would be needed.

Speaking in Parliament he said the vaccine was breaking the previously ‘rock solid’ link between infections and hospital admissions.

He said: ‘No one wants our freedoms to be restricted a single day longer than is necessary.

‘I know the impact that these restrictions have on the things we love, on our businesses, on our mental health.

‘It is still too early to make decisions on Step Four. The road map has always been guided by the data and, as before, we need four weeks between steps to see the latest data and a further week to give notice of our decision.

‘I know that these restrictions have not been easy and with our vaccine programme moving at such pace I’m confident that one day soon freedom will return.’

Further praising the vaccine rollout, Mr Hancock added: ‘The latest estimates indicate the vaccination programme has averted over 39,000 hospitalisations and over 13,000 deaths…

‘Despite the rise in cases, hospitalisations have been broadly flat. 

‘The majority of people in hospital with Covid appear to be those who haven’t had the vaccine at all.

‘I want to update the House on some new information that we have on this. As of the third of June our data show that of the 12,383 cases of the Delta variant, 464 went on to present at emergency care and 126 people were admitted to hospital. 

‘Of these 126 people, 83 were unvaccinated, 28 had received one dose and just three had received both doses of the vaccine.’

He said: ‘The jabs are working, we have to keep coming forward to get them and that includes vitally that second jab which we know gives better protection against the Delta variant.’

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