Downing Street believes early data shows England can forge ahead with the 21 June unlocking despite a chorus of warnings from scientists about rising case rates linked to the Delta variant first identified in India.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said there were encouraging signs vaccines were breaking the link between infections and hospitalisations as Public Health England announced zero daily reported Covid deaths for the first time since last summer.
Boris Johnson is understood to be optimistic about the current data but a No 10 source said the next few days would be crucial to assess the impact of the unlocking that took place from 17 May – though early data did not show significant cause for alarm.
“There is obviously concern about case numbers but we still need to see if that is translating to hospitalisations and deaths or if the vaccine is breaking that link,” the source said. “At the moment we do not have evidence that definitively suggests we should delay.”
The business minister Paul Scully also expressed “cautious optimism”. He told Times Radio the government did not want to have to roll back restrictions again. “One thing that we saw last year, before Christmas, was the stop-start nature just didn’t work for businesses and cost them more. So we’ve got to get it absolutely right. People’s jobs and livelihoods depend on it.”
However, the government’s former chief scientific adviser, Prof Sir Mark Walport, said on Tuesday it was “not impossible” that the country was in the foothills of a new wave as the Delta variant takes over, accounting for three-quarters of new cases. “It is a quite perilous moment, but we’ve just got to keep our fingers crossed that the measures work,” he said. A series of other scientists have echoed his concerns.
A number of Conservative MPs opposed to further restrictions fired warning shots at the suggestion the roadmap be delayed. The former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said the prime minister must resist “an organised push by a group of scientists to stop 21 June”.
“There is no actual fact that says we shouldn’t unlock on the 21st,” he said. “We were always told that the most important feature of all of this is to protect the most vulnerable. We have now double-dosed pretty near 50% of the population and that encompasses all the most vulnerable.”
Mark Harper, chair of the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, said there should be no reason not to “open up fully” on 21 June if vaccinations worked as well as had been reported.
Tory MPs are set to ramp up pressure this week for the government to commit to ditching social distancing rules in hospitality venues, or at least relax rules requiring table service. Several told the Guardian they believed the party could “live with” extended rules on mask-wearing or work-from-home guidance, even until the autumn when furlough support ends.
MPs say they have been led to believe Johnson is minded to forge ahead with the reopening. “He does not want to delay,” an ally of Johnson said. “But three weeks is an ice age in politics.”
Former minister David Jones, a member of the CRG, said: “I personally cannot see the justification for delay. The important issue is that of hospitalisations and deaths. Despite the spread of this variant it does not seem to be putting more people in hospital. We have had zero deaths today.
“We ought to reopen unless something horrendous happens and there is no reason to think it will. The hospitality business is finding it very difficult to operate in these conditions.”
Bob Blackman, a member of the 1922 Committee executive, whose Harrow East constituency has seen surge testing for the new variant, said: “21 June is the ideal but if we have data showing that it is not the right thing to do, then prove it to us. Life is a risk, we have people queueing up at the hospitals for treatment for other issues. But if the evidence is there that we need to delay for a month, then so be it.”
A number of MPs agreed a delay of a few weeks would be tolerated. “If it was four more weeks, to get more jabs in arms, people would put up with it,” a CRG member said.
Blackman said that the extension of the furlough scheme until the autumn meant many people were anticipating some delay. “Ideally we should be out of all restrictions by 21 June but if we are rolling back another three weeks, I think most people will accept it.”
However, some MPs said they were worried about a public backlash about delaying any further unlocking, a move that could harm Johnson’s opinion ratings.
“Most colleagues do believe we have to crack on now,” a moderate Tory MP said. “The effects of this variant do not appear to be as dire as first thought. We are stuck with the virus endemic in this country. At some point we have to take the plunge and reopen and hope that given the levels of vaccinations the consequences are not too serious.”