Crucial decisions on ditching social distancing and allowing bigger weddings could be delayed amid the the India variant alert, No10 admitted today.
The PM’s spokesman warned that Boris Johnson’s promise to announce the plans well ahead of the next stage of the lockdown roadmap on June 21 is no longer set in stone.
They also cautioned that the date still cannot be guaranteed – with ministers said to be at loggerheads over whether to push back to protect what one described as ‘idiot’ vaccine refuseniks from the new strain.
Tory MPs have been making their feelings clear on the issue, insisting ‘profound curtailment of freedom’ cannot carry on because small numbers of people are ‘freely choosing’ not to get jabs. One told MailOnline that Matt Hancock had ‘gone native’ and was siding with the ‘most fearful scientists’.
However, Downing Street said that if the Indian variant ends up being far more potent it would also pose a risk to people who have been vaccinated.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng insisted this morning he is still ‘confident’ and ‘fully expects’ the schedule to be kept despite anxiety about surging cases in ‘hotspots’.
However, he warned against ‘stigmatising’ those who do not want to get jabs. Summing up the dilemma over June 21 one minister told Politico: ‘The risk is that a small number of idiots ruin it for everyone else.’
Meanwhile, there is swirling speculation that local curbs might needed in England to keep the wider easing on track – with Scotland already targeting restrictions on specific areas.
At a briefing this afternoon, the PM’s spokesman was challenged on whether the conclusions of the social distancing review – potentially scrapping the one metre-plus rule – will be unveiled by the end of the month as expected.
‘We want to do it as soon as possible but, as I have set out, we need time to assess the latest data on this variant first identified in India,’ the spokesman said.
‘So I am not going to give a set time for doing that, like you say, given this change in circumstance.
‘But we want to do everything possible to give people enough time to prepare.’
Asked whether that also applied to Mr Johnson’s promise to clarify rules on weddings, the spokesman said: ‘Like I say, we need to, because of this variant, because of this change that has brought in this new threat that we have from the variant, we need to look at the data.
‘So of course we want to give as much time as possible to everyone in businesses or individuals to prepare.
‘It is also right that we have the latest data upon which to base that judgement.’
Boris Johnson (right) has urged families to adopt a ‘heavy dose of caution’ with the ban on indoor socialising and hugs finally ending today. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng (left) insisted this morning he is still ‘confident’ that the June 21 schedule can be kept despite anxiety about surging cases in ‘hotspots’
Revellers packed into pubs to celebrate the relaxation of restrictions in England today, amid fears over the Indian variant
Matt Hancock (pictured running this morning) has insisted ministers will not allow the new variant to ‘spread like wildfire’
Nicola Sturgeon issued a warning this morning as most of Scotland moved to Level 2 of the country’s coronavirus restrictions
Former minister Simon Clarke said ‘wider society should not be held back from recovering our freedoms by those who choose not to protect themselves and others’
Scientists warn against ‘high risk’ hugging indoors
A slew of Boris Johnson’s top scientists today warned against socialising indoors and the ‘high risk’ of hugging friends because of the rise in Indian variant cases despite Britons now being free to mix inside pubs, restaurants, museums, theatres and cinemas as well as stay with friends for the first time since Christmas.
The Prime Minister has urged families to adopt a ‘heavy dose of caution’ and a cabinet colleague encouraged revellers to avoid ‘excessive drinking’ with ministers at loggerheads over whether to extend lockdown beyond June 21 amid an eight per cent rise in infections in a week.
And in a hint the easing of all restrictions next month is now under threat, Mr Johnson’s official spokesman confirmed this afternoon that a review of the one-metre plus social distancing rule due to be released on May 31 may now be delayed. A May 24 update on opening up weddings to more guests is now also postponed.
In Bolton, a hotspot for the Indian strain, thousands more people than usual are being jabbed every day, with queues snaking outside health centres again today, as officials try to suppress the virus in an area where vaccine hesitancy and a clash with religious festivals such as Ramadan and Eid may have hampered efforts to slow its spread.
Last night thousands of people queued across the UK to enjoy a drink with friends inside pubs and bars after midnight, while this morning around 20 flights took off for Portugal as holidays became legal again and people enjoyed a pint and a meal inside for the first time in almost six months. Theatres, cinemas, galleries, museums and other tourist attractions can also open their doors again.
These venues are expected to be even busier this week because heavy showers and gales are forecast for at least the next ten days, with some areas soaked with a month’s worth of rain in the past week.
But Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and a senior member of the SAGE committee, said today that he would not meet indoors ‘at the moment’, despite millions of people now having the opportunity to do so.
The wrangling is escalating after Mr Johnson urged families to adopt a ‘heavy dose of caution’ with the ban on indoor socialising and hugs finally ending today.
In a guarded statement before revellers packed into pubs to celebrate the lifting of restrictions, the Prime Minister said the emergence of the Indian strain of coronavirus meant the restored freedoms should be exercised carefully.
Britain recorded four new daily Covid deaths and 1,926 cases yesterday as Matt Hancock urged people to hug ‘carefully’ and get jabbed to prevent the new Indian strain spreading ‘like wildfire’.
The government’s Covid dashboard showed there was an eight per cent increase in cases over last week, as most of the UK loosens Covid restrictions.
The UK’s daily death toll has doubled on last week, from two on May 9 to four yesterday – bringing the UK total to 127,679 dead. There were a reported 129 people on ventilation in hospital in the UK and 991 people currently hospitalised due to virus, as of Thursday May 13 – the latest figures available.
From today, pubs, restaurants and cafes can serve customers indoors, cinemas and hotels can reopen and people can embrace loved ones from other households for the first time in more than a year.
Tory MPs called on Mr Johnson to reject warnings from scientists that lockdown curbs may have to remain in place longer because of the new variant.
Mark Harper, head of the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group, said: ‘Concerning to hear Govt is entertaining the delay of the 21 June unlocking – causing massive problems for many people’s livelihoods – because some people won’t have a jab.
‘Wider society’s fate can’t be sealed by the actions of a small group of people, whatever their reasoning.’
Former minister Simon Clarke said: ‘The evidence is increasingly encouraging that vaccination works against the Indian variant.
‘It’s vital people take the vaccine when offered – our wider society should not be held back from recovering our freedoms by those who choose not to protect themselves and others.’
Another ex-minister, Conor Burns, said it would ‘not be right’ to hold the whole population back. ‘As a nation we have tolerated with generally good humour the most profound curtailment of our freedoms in peacetime for the greater good,’ he said. ‘It wouldn’t be right to do it again for those who have been offered a vaccine and have freely chosen not to take it – fully aware of the risks.’
Lord Lloyd-Webber said people refusing to take up the offer of a coronavirus vaccine were ‘selfish’ as they could hinder the ability to lift all restrictions next month.
The composer said he would not be opening shows in his theatres until all measures are scrapped as they were ‘too costly’ to play to reduced audiences.
The peer told BBC Radio 4’s World At One the June 21 date was ‘absolutely critical’, adding: ‘If that doesn’t happen, I really don’t even want to think about it.
‘It has been such a devastating time for everybody.
‘I just feel so strongly at the moment, particularly the people who are not getting vaccinated and everything, just how selfish it is because so many people depend on this June 21 date, they really depend on it.
‘I’d say to everybody, please support theatre and live music – it is the heartbeat of the country, what we do. It is essential.
‘Support your theatres everywhere and get vaccinated.’
However, No10 stressed the concern about the Indian variant was not solely about people unwilling or unable to take a vaccine – but the risk that people who had received a jab would still be vulnerable.
In a worst-case scenario, there could be a ‘situation where not just individuals who are vaccine resistant or vaccine hesitant or those who have not sought out their first jab might catch coronavirus but those who have had the first dose or those who have had two doses but for whom vaccine efficacy is reduced’.
‘That would then lead to increased hospitalisations and put unsustainable pressure on our NHS. That’s the situation we are attempting to avoid here,’ the spokesman said.
Pressed on whether officials could go door to door to combat vaccine hesitancy, the spokesman said: ‘Firstly it’s really important whenever talking about hesitancy to highlight the fact that we have the most enthusiastic population for vaccine uptake in the world and that enthusiasm has only increased as we’ve progressed on the rollout.
NHS figures show that vaccine uptake among all over-40s, which is at 83 per cent average across England, is below average in all but one (Sefton) of the Indian variant hotspot areas. Although experts do not think the at-risk older age groups are the ones driving outbreaks at the moment, it could be cause for concern if the virus spreads to them
Heat maps of where the Indian variant has become most common (left) and where vaccine uptake is lowest (right) show that the same areas are doing badly on both counts – the North West, the Midlands and London. These are the most urban and most populated parts of the country, which are known to be worse affected by outbreaks and have been throughout the pandemic
‘But that said we are not complacent and there are a number of different approaches we’re taking with vaccine-hesitant groups to engage them whether be it via social media, with community leaders directly, using trusted voices, clinical voices, and that work continues.’
Mr Kwarteng told Sky News there is ‘no reason’ to think the June 21 loosening cannot go ahead.
‘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,’ he said.
‘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.’
Asked whether the unlocking next month could still happen despite a growing number of Indian variant cases being recorded, Mr Kwarteng said that he ‘fully expects’ to be reopened by June 21, adding: ‘I think it is very likely to happen.
‘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.’
But health experts have told Britons to ignore Government advice and stay outside, despite today’s relaxation of lockdown rules.
Professor Sir Mark Walport, a member of the Sage scientific advisory group, warned the pandemic was at a ‘perilous moment’ and it was ‘extremely important’ to keep a close eye on the numbers over the next few weeks.
‘My personal judgement is that I will do things outside as far as possible,’ he said. ‘My advice is that just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should.’
When asked by Sky News’ Sophie Ridge if that meant he would be staying outside, he replied: ‘Outside for the moment, yes.’
And professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Martin McKee, agreed, telling the Guardian: ‘Based on the precautionary principle and on the experience in earlier waves, I am very concerned. Personally I will not be going indoors in bars or restaurants for some time.’
The Hippodrome in Leicester Square reopens its doors at 00.01 on Monday to hundreds of customers
Nicola Sturgeon issued a warning this morning as most of Scotland moved to Level 2 of the country’s coronavirus restrictions.
The First Minister tweeted: ‘Covid restrictions ease further today as many parts of Scotland move to level 2 (sadly not yet Glasgow City or Moray) and many islands to level 1.
‘This is a long awaited moment but remember that the virus still poses a big threat, so please continue to be cautious & very careful.’
Matt Hancock insisted yesterday ministers will not allow the new variant to ‘spread like wildfire’ and suggested only the fully vaccinated should embrace, and even then outdoors.
He made clear that returning to a system of Tiers, as was in place in England last autumn, was on the cards, although he also insisted he was not convinced it had been highly effective.
The Health Secretary also infuriated travel firms by warning against trips abroad, despite today’s lifting of the ban on foreign holidays.
Sir Graham Brady, a senior Tory MP, urged the Prime Minister not to ‘panic’ over the new variant, which is still rare in the UK.
And his colleague Iain Duncan Smith said it was ‘bonkers’ to even consider further delays to reopening when evidence suggested existing vaccines worked against the Indian strain.
Today’s easing of Covid curbs is the biggest since the latest lockdown began in January.
Hotels and B&Bs can reopen to take advantage of the lifting of the ban on overnight stays while cinemas, museums and soft play centres can reopen their doors. The £5,000 fines for taking a foreign holiday will be scrapped.
Economists believe that families could splash out more than £800million this week as they celebrate the chance to meet loved ones again for the first time in months.
However Mr Johnson warned: ‘Together we have reached another milestone in our roadmap out of lockdown, but we must take this next step with a heavy dose of caution.
‘We are keeping the spread of the variant first identified in India under close observation and taking swift action where infection rates are rising.’
A week ago he declared Britain was on track to lift all remaining Covid curbs on June 21. But he rowed back from the pledge on Friday, saying the emergence of the new variant meant there was now ‘a real risk of disruption’.
The dramatic shift in tone followed a warning from government scientists that the fast-spreading variant could spark a surge in cases, especially with the resumption of indoor socialising.
Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, said early data on the effectiveness of the vaccines on the Indian variant looked ‘OK’.
Former Tory leader Sir Iain said: ‘People are getting in a panic about this new variant, when we should be celebrating the fact that the vaccines work – it is bonkers.
‘Ministers have to avoid the Corporal Jones mentality, tell the scientists to get back to their labs and get on with giving people back their freedom.’
With the Foreign Office now advising against travel to Israel, Portugal is the only sizeable ‘green list’ destination for British travellers looking to use their new freedom.
Government sources said the release of an updated version of the NHS app did not mean Covid passports would be introduced domestically.
What can people in England do from May 17?
Can people come over to my house again?
Yes. Up to six people from multiple households or an unlimited number of people from two households will be allowed to visit you inside your house again.
Can people stay over at my house again?
Yes. People from outside your household will be allowed to stay overnight, as long as you stick to within the rule of six or two households.
Can I still meet people outside?
Yes. You will now be able to meet in groups of up to 30 people outside. Bigger groups will be illegal. Until May 17, you can still only meet outside in groups of six.
A member of bar staff wearing a face masks serves drink in a pub in East London in July 2020
Can I hug my friends and family again?
Yes. The Government has said you can hug ‘close friends and family’ from outside your own household – for the first time since the pandemic began in March 2020.
However, people are being urged to be ‘exercise their own personal judgement in line with the risks.’ There is no legal definition on who ‘close friends and family’ are.
The Government also said wider social distancing rules will remain in place in adult social care, medical, retail, hospitality and business settings.
Can you sit inside a pub again?
Yes, indoor hospitality will resume – so you can sit inside a pub or restaurant with people from other households, as long as the rule of six (or two households) is met.
Will there be a substantial meal or curfew requirement for pubs?
No. As with step two on April 12, venues will not have to serve a substantial meal with alcoholic drinks; nor will there be a curfew.
An audience sit at the Pavilion theatre in Weymouth for a pantomime in December last year
Will you be able to stand at the bar?
No. Customers will still have to order, eat and drink while seated at a hospitality venue – even though they will now be allowed inside.
Will indoor entertainment venues now be allowed to reopen?
Yes. Cinemas, theatres, museums and indoor children’s play areas will all be allowed to reopen, but must follow guidelines on social distancing and face masks.
Concert halls, conference centres and sports stadia will also be allowed to reopen, with larger events in all venues able to resume with capacity limits (see below).
Will venues face capacity limits?
Yes. Larger performances and sporting events will be capped in indoor venues with a capacity of 1,000 people or half-full, whichever is a lower number. For outdoor venues the cap will be 4,000 people or half-full – again, whichever is lower.
In the largest outdoor seated venues, where crowds can be spread out, up to 10,000 people will be able to attend – or a quarter-full, whichever is lower.
Football fans at Wembley Stadium at a pilot event for the FA Cup semi-final last month
Will social distancing and face masks rules remain for now?
Yes. The one-metre (3ft) rule remains in place in public settings such as pubs, shops and restaurants. You should wear a face mask when walking around these places.
What about children wearing masks in schools?
Secondary school children will no longer have to wear face masks in classrooms and corridors from May 17. However, those aged 11 and above will still be required to wear the masks in public settings such as shops, unless they have a medical exemption.
Ministers said infection rates among students and staff continue to decrease in line with wider community transmission, but twice weekly home testing will remain.
Will students be able to attend university lectures in person again?
Yes. All university students in England can return to campus next week for in-person teaching. They will be expected to get tested for Covid-19 twice a week.
Most students, apart from those on critical courses, were told not to travel back to term-time accommodation as part of the third national lockdown in January.
Students on practical courses, who require specialist equipment and facilities, began returning to face-to-face teaching on March 8. But it is estimated that about half of university students have not been eligible to return to in-person lessons.
Cinema-goers in their seats for a film at the Odeon Leicester Square in London last August
Can I go on holiday abroad again?
Yes, but with many restrictions. Last Friday, the UK Government cleared just 12 destinations for quarantine-free tourist trips for Britons from May 17.
However, many of the destinations are remote islands or have very strict entry measures or blanket bans on UK tourists, further reducing the list of options.
Portugal and Gibraltar are the only countries on the ‘green list‘ that most Britons will realistically be able to visit for a warm weather holiday this month.
You can technically also go on holiday to ‘amber list’ and ‘red list’ countries again too, but you will need to complete a period of quarantine as follows:
For amber list, you must quarantine at home for ten days on your return and take a PCR test on days two and eight – as well as a lateral flow test before the return flight.
Or there is an alternative option that you could pay for an additional ‘Test to Release’ on day five to end self-isolation early. There is also a chance the country turns red.
Those returning from a red list country must stay in a government-approved quarantine hotel for 11 nights upon their return at a cost of £1,750.
Will there be a new limit on wedding numbers?
Yes. Up to 30 people will now be able to attend weddings. This limit will also apply to other types of significant life events including bar mitzvahs and christenings.
Will funerals also now be limited to 30 people?
No. There will now be no limit of the number of mourners at funerals, although the venue must operate in a socially distanced way and within capacity guidelines.
Travellers arrive at London Heathrow Airport on May 3. Non-essential travel is set to reopen
Can you stay overnight somewhere with people from another family?
Yes. The rest of the accommodation sector will now reopen, including hotels, hostels and B&Bs – and people from different households can share the same room.
Up until May 17, if you want to stay at a hotel or self-catering accommodation, you must only do so with members of your own household or support bubble.
Can I go to indoor sport classes now?
Yes. All indoor adult group sports and exercise classes will be allowed again, five weeks after gyms were allowed to reopen under step two on April 12.
Will closed parts of leisure centres now be allowed to reopen?
Yes. Saunas and steam rooms will now be allowed to reopen, following on from swimming pools and gyms on April 12.
There will be no more limits on mourners at funerals. Above: File picture of a funeral last July
Will there be limits on numbers in support groups?
Yes. The Government has said 30 people will now be able to attend a support group or parent and child group. The limit does not include children aged under five.
Will restrictions on care home visiting be changed?
Yes. Care home visiting will be eased further, with residents able to have up to five named visitors and more freedom to make ‘low risk visits’ out of the home.
Will the guidance on working from home change?
No. People are still being advised to ‘continue to work from home where they can’.
Hugs with family and friends will be allowed again from May 17 (file picture posed by models)
What is the exact time that the rules change on May 17?
Unconfirmed. This is not yet clear, but the April 12 rule change towards step two came in at midnight, so it is likely this will be the same for May 18.
Are there businesses that still cannot reopen?
Yes. Nightclubs are the only businesses that must remain shut until at least June 21.
Is there a confirmed date for when all Covid rules will cease?
Not yet. The Government hopes that on June 21 it will be able to drop all legal limits on social contact, but this will be confirmed nearer the time.
Before this date, the Government will complete a review of social distancing and other long-term measures such as face masks and guidance on working from home.
All university students in England can return to campus next week for in-person teaching (file)
Why can we now move into Step 3 on May 17?
The Government has set four tests to further ease restrictions, which have now been met. These are that:
- The vaccine deployment programme continues successfully;
- Evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated;
- Infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS;
- Assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new variants of concern.
It also comes after the UK Chief Medical Officers confirmed this morning that the UK Covid-19 alert level should move from level four to level three.