U.K.’s Sunak Prepared to Accept Delay to End of Covid Lockdown

U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak is prepared to accept delaying the end of lockdown measures past June 21, removing one potential hurdle to what would be a politically contentious decision.

Sunak in March extended key economic support for workers and businesses through to the end of September precisely to allow for delays to the “roadmap” for unlocking the economy, a person familiar with the matter said, declining to comment on a specific timescale. The Guardian newspaper reported the chancellor would be ready to countenance a four-week delay.

The chancellor’s backing would increase the chances of the government pushing back the June 21 easing -- including the elimination of social distancing rules and the reopening of nightclubs and larger events -- with health authorities increasingly concerned about the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant of coronavirus.

Ministers are due to announce Monday whether the last phase of a four-stage re-opening of the economy will go ahead the following week. But recent data has been moving in the wrong direction, and the government sent military personnel to hotspots in northern England on Tuesday to help tackle outbreaks.

A delay would trigger a clash between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and a group of rank-and-file Conservatives in Parliament, who say Britons to decide for themselves what risks to take and have dubbed June 21 “Freedom Day.”

‘Last Chance’

“Not only is this the last chance for all those industries that make life worth living like hospitality, live entertainment and tourism, it’s time for us to reconnect with family and friends and to regain our mental health,” Tory MP Steve Baker said late Tuesday. He urged the government to “lift all remaining restrictions -- especially social distancing requirements.”

There’s also growing pressure on the government from business. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who says theaters are unable to operate profitably with the current restrictions on audience numbers, told the Telegraph newspaper he would open his theaters without social distancing this month -- even if restrictions aren’t lifted -- and challenged the government to arrest him.

Continued restrictions on the arts are neither “rational” nor “proportionate,” he told BBC radio on Wednesday. “Don’t keep penalizing the poor live music and theater sector.” Though audiences should wear facemasks, he said his industry is “probably the least likely to pass on any infection.”

For health officials, the delta variant is triggering the most concern. Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Parliament on Tuesday the government is still waiting for “conclusive” data on the effectiveness of vaccines against the mutation, which he has said is 40% faster-spreading than the previously dominant Alpha variant.

Hotspot Help

Hancock announced a “strengthened package of support” in Greater Manchester and Lancashire, including more testing and door-to-door visits to encourage vaccine take-up. Residents were advised to minimize travel, though officials insisted it’s not a local lockdown.

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham urged the government to send the region more vaccine doses.

A further 6,048 laboratory-confirmed Covid-19 cases were reported on Tuesday, up from 5,238 last week. NHS England data showed there were 879 coronavirus patients in hospitals, up from 776 in a week.

According to data published Wednesday by the statistics office, an estimated 80% of the adult population in England now has coronavirus antibodies, suggesting they have either had the infection in the past or have been vaccinated.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.