Boris Johnson looks set to delay the final lifting of coronavirus lockdown restrictions in England following another sharp rise in cases of the Delta variant.
Ministers are considering putting back the relaxing of controls planned for June 21 for up to four weeks as they race to roll out the vaccine to younger age groups.
A final decision is expected to be taken on Sunday ahead of a formal announcement by the Prime Minister at a news conference on Monday.
It comes amid repeated warnings from some scientists that the rapid spread of the Delta variant first identified in India could lead to a “substantial” third wave if controls are lifted.
Mr Johnson has previously said it was still too early to say whether the lockdown easing should go ahead, saying: “On Monday ... we’ll have a look at where we are. I think what everybody can see very clearly is that cases are going up, and in some cases hospitalisations are going up.
“What we need to assess is the extent to which the vaccine rollout, which has been phenomenal, has built up protection in the population in order for us to go ahead to the next stage. And so that’s what we’ll be looking at.”
On Saturday, Foreign Office minister James Cleverly refused to confirm the delay, but said: “We always knew there would be a chance of mutations and variants - that’s why this unlocking process was a progressive one and that’s why we have had these decision points laid out.
“That’s why the Government, the Prime Minister and our scientific advisers will be assessing the data and making decisions for the announcement on Monday.
“We will make decisions with regard to lockdown based on the most up-to-date information.”
It comes after the British Medical Association (BMA) lent its voice to calls to scrap the 21 June date – first floated back in February – over concerns about the impact of the now dominant Delta variant, estimated by Public Health England to be 60 per cent more transmissible than the Kent variant responsible for the UK’s devastating wave of infections in January.
With the variant first identified in India now accounting for 96 per cent of new cases, Public Health England data showed on Friday that 42,323 cases had now been recorded in the UK – up 29,892 from the previous week.
BMA council chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul said the figures showed more time is needed to get the vaccine to more people, saying: “With only 54.2 per cent of the adult population currently fully vaccinated and many younger people not yet eligible, there is a huge risk that prematurely relaxing all restrictions will undo the excellent work of the vaccine programme and lead to a surge of infections.
“It’s not just about the number of hospitalisations, but also the risk to the health of large numbers of younger people, who can suffer long-term symptoms affecting their lives and ability to work.”
Research into how effective vaccines are against the Indian variant, published by NHS England in May suggests that two vaccine doses are far more effective than just one – with a single dose of both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer jabs found to offer just 33 per cent protection against the Delta variant, compared with 60 and 88 per cent, respectively, after two doses.
The BMA’s stance emerged as a survey of health and care organisations by the NHS Confederationfound that 63 per cent of the 282 leaders working across primary care, hospitals and community who responded did not think restrictions should be lifted.
According to The Telegraph, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has warned the government that cases could exceed the first wave peak if the 21 June date goes ahead.
Meanwhile, the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, Layla Moran, said the figures should “set alarm bells ringing” in government, insisting that ministers must “immediately explain to the public whether this exponential growth suggests the country is in line for a severe third wave, and if so what it is doing to prevent this”.
While the Cabinet’s Covid Operations group will reportedly meet on Sunday ahead of a full Cabinet meeting on Monday, this will take place amid the G7 and Nato summits.
Although the prime minister may reportedly offer some concessions on weddings on 21 June, according to Sky News, restrictions on nightclubs and other venues are expected to remain.
Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the pace of new infections was “deeply worrying” and put the lifting of restrictions at risk, adding: “The blame for this lies with the prime minister and his reckless refusal to act on Labour’s repeated warnings to secure our borders against Covid and its variants.”
On Friday morning, the government’s vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi emphasised that the virus “hasn’t gone away” when asked about reports of a delay.
“There have been some really hard-won battles against this virus and we don’t want to squander those hard-fought gains that we have made through the vaccination programme,” Mr Zahawi told Times Radio Breakfast.
“The virus hasn’t gone away, the virus will continue to attempt to mutate, to escape, to try and survive, and I think it’s really important that we are really careful.”
Mr Zahawi said the government was “on track” to meet a target of all over-50s being offered their second jab by 21 June, as he appealed to those who had not had a first dose to come forward to be vaccinated.
In the UK, more than 41 million people, or 78 per cent of the adult population, have now had a first vaccine dose, while some 29 million have received their second.
Additional reporting by PA