Downing Street is due to announce its decision on the next stage of Covid reopening in England by Monday, a week ahead of 21 June, which was set as the earliest date to bring in what is officially stage four of the Covid unlocking process. The original aim was to remove “all legal limits on social contact”, allowing the reopening of remaining businesses such as nightclubs. Public health is a devolved matter, meaning Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do not have the same deadline. Here are some possible options for England. They are not exclusive, meaning several could be used at the same time.
Push ahead as planned
This seems increasingly unlikely, for one very obvious reason: the rapid spread of the Delta variant. First detected in India, it is believed to be about 60% more transmissible than the previously-dominant Alpha variant, first seen in Kent. Public Health England data has said that up to 96% of new UK Covid cases involve the Delta variant, and that cases are doubling between every 4.5 and 11.5 days. It is connected to a greater risk of hospitalisation, with warnings that continued unlocking would be likely to bring a third wave of coronavirus, potentially on a similar scale to those seen before.
The difference this time, of course, is that more than 40 million Britons have received at least one Covid vaccine dose, with the rollout in England extended to people aged 25 or over. This means that so far the rise in cases and hospital admissions has not been matched by a parallel rise in deaths from Covid, with such a high proportion of more clinically vulnerable people already vaccinated. A number of Conservative backbenchers, particularly centred around the Covid Recovery Group faction, have repeatedly called for the 21 June reopening to continue as scheduled, but if Boris Johnson did push ahead with it he would face significant backlash both from opposition parties and public health officials. The Association of Directors of Public Health and the British Medical Association have called for a delay, the latter saying it was clear the government had not met its four tests for reopening, one of which stipulates that a new variant has not significantly changed the situation.
Delay for two weeks
This is one option officials have been looking at, with the aim of allowing more time for people to be vaccinated, and others given an extra couple of weeks post-injection for full protection to take effect. Earlier in the week Matt Hancock said that of people in hospital in England with the Delta variant, just three had received both vaccinations. It would be unpopular with some Tory backbenchers, but some of the angst could be assuaged if it was sold as a set delay for a particular reason – to allow greater immunity to build up, thus easing the impact of any Delta variant-created third wave.
Delay for four weeks
The same arguments hold true for this option, though more so, and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is understood to be potentially amenable. On the negative side for ministers, the longer the delay the more the likely the backbench unrest.
Speed up or expand vaccinations
One option would be to boost the vaccination programme for younger adults by also giving them the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. In May, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) recommended those under 40 should not be given the vaccine because of a very small risk of blood clots. On Friday the vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, said it would have “made a difference” to the rollout if young people could have received any vaccine. The decision was based on the very low counter-risk of younger people becoming seriously ill with Covid, and it is possible the Delta variant could shift that calculation. Another possibility would be to vaccinate secondary-age children to reduce the level of spread inside schools, as already called for by school leaders.
While it seems a delay is likely, if yet more measures are needed to tackle the Covid variant during or after this, ministers have some options at their disposal. One would be to avoid any call for people who are working from home to return to offices, thus limiting in-work transmission as well as reducing numbers on public transport.
Another would be to implement differing localised restrictions, like those in Scotland. However, Johnson has said he wants to take an England-wide approach, so this is unlikely beyond surge testing and limited guidance, for example around discouraging travel into and out of areas with very high case rates. Parallel reviews into the possible need for continued social distancing, and on the use of Covid status certificates, are also due to report before 21 June, and the first could recommend, for example, the longer term use of one-metre distancing guidelines, and/or the use of masks in some public spaces. Certificates based on vaccination status or recent Covid or antibody tests have been examined as a way of allowing greater social mixing with reduced transmission of the virus, but ministers appear to be leaning against the idea, not least given that almost all adults are on course to be vaccinated before too long.