England is braced for a four-week extension of coronavirus restrictions to 19 July, after Boris Johnson said he will take a “cautious” approach to the final removal of lockdown.
Hospitality chiefs told The Independent that the extra month of curbs will cost the sector £3bn and put 200,000 jobs at risk, and there were warnings that hundreds of nightlife businesses could close, with a moratorium on commercial evictions now set to expire within the extended lockdown on 30 June.
Speaking at the G7 summit in Cornwall, Mr Johnson insisted that a final decision on the mooted 21 June date for “Freedom Day” will not be taken until Monday.
But he left little doubt that the surge in infections of the Delta variant of Covid-19 has forced him to abandon the date, identified in his roadmap as the earliest possible moment for the lifting of limits on social gatherings and attendance at sports fixtures and the reopening of high-risk venues like nightclubs.
Mr Johnson is understood to be considering pressing ahead with lifting the cap on attendance at weddings from 30 to 100 for outdoor celebrations, despite fears that they could become “super-spreader events”.
And it is thought likely that he will announce plans for a review after two weeks to see whether infections, hospitalisations and deaths have receded sufficiently to allow greater freedoms.
After figures showed a 50 per cent increase in Covid cases over the last week, Mr Johnson admitted that he had become less optimistic about the prospect of reopening in June, adding: “Where it’s necessary to be cautious, we will be.”
He made clear that his priority is to avoid triggering a fourth lockdown by lifting restrictions prematurely, stressing the importance of ensuring that relaxations are “irreversible”.
But he reassured Britons that scientists are not currently arguing for the reversal of easements introduced in May, such as the reopening of non-essential shops and indoor hospitality.
“It’s clear that the Indian variant is more transmissible and it’s also true that the cases are going up, and that the levels of hospitalisation are going up,” he told Sky News.
“Now, we don’t know exactly to what extent that is going to feed through into extra mortality, but clearly it’s a matter of serious, serious concern.”
He added: “What we want to do is make sure that the roadmap is irreversible, but you can’t have an irreversible roadmap unless you’re prepared to be cautious.
“Some of the data is still open to question, but we’ll be making an announcement on Monday.”
The prime minister also appeared to accept that it may be better to allow more time for a larger proportion of the population to get fully vaccinated.
“We’re looking at all the data, but what we’re wanting to do is avoid another wave of deaths that could be prevented by allowing the vaccines to work in the way that they are,” he told ITV News.
“The vaccine programme has been absolutely astonishing, and there’s no question that if you look at the people going into hospital now, they tend to be in different groups, younger groups, than we saw in the first couple of waves of the pandemic.
“But it may be that in the race between the vaccines and the virus, we need to make sure we give the vaccines extra legs.”
Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said the advice being given to ministers was being updated on a day-by-day basis as Monday approaches, but refused to disclose whether experts are recommending a four-week delay.
Speaking at the Cornwall summit, Sir Patrick said: “We have been giving continuous scientific advice as we look at the data day by day. We have had many meetings on this. The scientific advice is still ongoing and the prime minister and ministers will make their decision on that.”
On Friday, the British Medical Association joined those calling for a delay, after the most recent data showed the R rate of reproduction of the virus at its highest since January – between 1.2 and 1.4.
Daily cases hit a four-month high of 8,125 on Friday, and a further 7,738 cases, 187 hospital admissions and 12 deaths were reported on Saturday.
Figures published by Public Health England (PHE) showed that 47,868 cases of the Indian variant had been confirmed in the UK over the past seven days, an increase of 52 per cent from the previous week. The 1,008 figure for hospital admissions over the past seven days was up 15 per cent on the previous week.
PHE estimates that the strain is 60 per cent more transmissible than the Alpha variant first identified in Kent, with cases doubling every four and a half days in some areas.
The CEO of trade body UK Hospitality, Kate Nicholls, told The Independent that a four-week delay would be a bitter blow to the sector.
“For the one in four businesses yet to be able to legally open it pushes them ever closer to the brink and for the remainder who are open but trading with restrictions it undermines their long-term viability as they cannot trade profitably under restrictions, plunging them deeper into loss and debt,” said Ms Nicholls.
“An extra month of lockdown costs hospitality £3bn in lost revenue, puts 900 premises at risk and 200,000 jobs at risk as for many in the sector they simply run out of road and the government’s support such as rate relief runs out.”
Michael Kill, the CEO of the Night Time Industries Association, said that a further four weeks of legally mandated closure would be “devastating” for the nightlife industry after 16 months of empty clubs and dancefloors.
“The industry has invested thousands if not millions of pounds in reopening on 21 June and they are now about to lose another four weeks worth of trade, which is worth an average of around £30-40,000 a week in revenues, which is not an easy figure to lose when debts are mounting and landlords and suppliers are banging on the door,” he told The Independent.
On top of the financial hit, he said further postponement would have an impact on the mental health of club owners, freelancers and employees and a “legacy impact” on the UK’s once-thriving nightlife scene as investors and landlords lose confidence in the future viability of businesses.
Mr Kill said any extended restrictions should be accompanied by financial support for the sector.
“I don’t think they can shy away from extending some of the reliefs on business rates and VAT and extending interest-free periods for loans,” he said. “If there isn’t a resolution to the commercial rent issue we will see a huge swathe of businesses go to the wall when the moratorium on evictions ends at the end of this month.”