Johnson Hints at Delay to End of Lockdown as U.K. Cases Surge

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now less hopeful he will be able to lift England’s pandemic restrictions as planned on June 21, suggesting rules may need to be kept in place for longer as cases surge.

Johnson said the government must be “cautious” about when to take the final step out of lockdown to protect the success of the U.K.’s vaccine program in containing Covid-19. Officials will be studying the latest data on the spread of the now dominant delta variant first discovered in India before making an announcement Monday about the next step.

Asked if he was less optimistic now about continuing his “roadmap” out of lockdown than he was at the end of May, he said: “Yes, that’s certainly fair. 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.”

The worsening outlook has led ministers to discuss options including delays ranging from nine days to a month, and potentially keeping some rules in place while others are relaxed. The number of confirmed cases of the delta strain tripled in a week to 42,323, posing a dilemma for Johnson.

The prime minister had hoped that one of the world’s most advanced vaccination programs would allow the U.K. to drop social-distancing measures altogether on June 21.

Delaying the final phase in the U.K.’s gradual easing would be a blow to entertainment and hospitality businesses including bars and theaters, which will be forced to stay shut or keep tight restrictions on customer numbers.

“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 hospitalization are going up,” Johnson said in an interview with Sky News at the Group of Seven summit in Cornwall, southwest England. “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.”

Johnson is under pressure to proceed with the final stage of reopening the economy. Businesses are buckling under measures that include the requirement on pubs and restaurants to provide table service only, limits on the size of theater, concert and sports audiences, and restrictions on the number of guests at weddings. But the government now faces a slew of deteriorating coronavirus data.

The reproduction rate of the virus in England has risen to levels last seen in October, the government said Friday. Separate research by the statistics office found an estimated 1 in 560 people in England had the virus in the week to June 4, up from 1 in 640 a week earlier and 1 in 1,340 in early May.

The month-long rising trend has been fueled by the 60% more infectious delta variant of the virus first identified in India, which now accounts for more than 90% of all infections in the U.K.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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