A senior minister has cast further doubt that England’s coronavirus lockdown will be able to end on 21 June.
COVID-19 vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said on Friday: “Let’s not squander these hard-fought gains.”
Amid the continued spread of the more transmissible Delta variant of the virus, which was first identified in India, The Times has reported Boris Johnson is considering delaying the end of lockdown by four weeks in order to provide extra time for people to receive both their vaccine doses.
This would mean lockdown restrictions instead being dropped on 19 July. Johnson will make an announcement on Monday.
Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, it was put to Zahawi: “It's clear there's going to be a delay.”
While refusing to confirm this, Zahawi effectively put forward a case for delaying.
“The vaccines have begun to sever the link between infection rates, cases, hospitalisations and deaths,” he said.
“It’s really important, with these hard-won battles against the virus… the virus hasn’t gone away, it will attempt to survive by mutating [and] it can only mutate if it has a population to infect."
He added: “Let’s not squander those hard-fought gains.”
Watch: Friday's daily politics briefing
A delay to the end of lockdown is beginning to look inevitable.
The Delta variant is about 60% more transmissible than the previously-dominant Alpha variant first identified in Kent.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said on Thursday that the Delta variant now makes up 91% of the UK's COVID cases.
Infections in the seven days up to Thursday, meanwhile, increased by 17,036 (63.2%) on the previous seven days.
While the latest data on Delta variant hospital admissions is encouraging – only three fully vaccinated people of 12,383 cases had been admitted as of 3 June – more than 20 million UK adults still need to receive a second dose.
Previous modelling from University of Warwick researchers, in evidence supplied to the government last month, raised the prospect that a variant that is 50% more transmissible could lead to a peak of more than 20,000 daily hospital admissions in the middle of July if lockdown is lifted as planned.
The second wave peak on 12 January saw 4,578 patients admitted to hospital.
Speaking on Wednesday, Prof Neil Ferguson, who is one of the UK’s leading COVID experts and whose modelling convinced Johnson to impose the first national lockdown in March last year, was asked if delaying the end of lockdown will make a difference.
“Yes," he said, “because it allows more people to get second doses.”
Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy also said on Friday it was “highly unlikely” the full relaxation of restrictions will go ahead later this month.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, the Labour frontbencher said: “I think if we proceed too fast, if the government can’t get control of the new variant… then we could end up in another lockdown and this has got to be the last lockdown.”
Watch: Coronavirus vaccine in numbers – UK nearly reaches 70 million jabs