As ministers reportedly consider delaying the final step in the UK’s road map out of COVID-19 lockdown, Chancellor Rishi Sunak could agree to a brief extension of restrictions, according to the Daily Mail.
Sunak could be persuaded to accept a postponement of so-called “Freedom Day” by “a week or two”, a Whitehall source was cited as saying.
Anything further than that would purportedly be resisted, as this could involve extending the furlough scheme.
“I don't think he's in principle against a short delay if that is what is necessary… If it is more than a week or two then that is problematic,” added the source.
The current Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which paid up to 80 percent of the wages of around 9.5 million people for the hours they couldn't work due to the pandemic starting from March 2020, was set to expire at the end of April 2021.
The government has extended the furlough scheme until the end of September, with Sunak confirming the extension during his Budget announcement on 3 March.
At the time, he said that the scheme would help millions through "the challenging months ahead".
UK Treasury sources were cited by the outlet as saying there were no plans to extend the furlough scheme, which is set to continue in full until the end of June. From July, employers will be required to make gradually increasing contributions until the scheme expires in September.
‘Freedom Day’ Dilemma
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has found himself between a rock and a hard place, as he has been under pressure from a string of Cabinet ministers, including Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who urge him to stick to the target date of 21 June.
Those who favour following through with the pencilled-in date for lifting the lockdown argue there is a pressing need to get key sectors, including hospitality, working full throttle again.
Peviously, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that the government was “absolutely open” to delaying so-called “Freedom Day”, with his words subsequently slammed by some Tory MPs for potentially “wasting the advantages afforded by the success of vaccinations”.
Tory MPs have been urging Johnson to overrule the health scientists’ advice. Former Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith was quoted as saying:
“Scientists have got themselves into a frightened state where none of them want to be the one who says unlock because they are fearful they will be blamed if something goes wrong, even though there is no evidence that it will. They are drifting towards a zero Covid goal, which is unattainable, and the politicians have to take back control.”
‘Downbeat’ COVID-19 Data
England’s remaining coronavirus restrictions were slated to be lifted on 21 June, in line with the government’s programme for gradually easing measures introduces to curb the spread of the novel respiratory virus.
However, The Times reported that ministers received a “downbeat” briefing on the latest coronavirus data on Monday from chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.
The health experts reportedly emphasised spiralling concerns about the rate of transmission of new strains of coronavirus, such as the Indian variant, now referred to by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as “Delta”.
This comes against the backdrop of the nation’s impressive vaccination rollout, with over-25s in England finally to be offered a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, thus bringing the UK a step closer to meeting its target to offer all adults a jab by the end of July.
However, COVID-19 cases are rising again, linked to a new variant first discovered in India, also known as B.1.617.2 or Delta.
Out of 12,383 cases of the Delta variant in the UK, 464 people had to require emergency care and 126 were admitted to hospital, as of 7 June.
Of these, 83 people were unvaccinated, 28 had one dose of vaccine and just three had both doses, according to government data. Accordingly, a chorus of voices has been urging to leave the restrictions in place until as late as the start of English school holidays on 23 July.
Boris Johnson is gearing up to make a final decision by 14 June on whether to proceed with so-called “Freedom Day” as planned.
England vaccination first dose take-up chart by age range. pic.twitter.com/A1ULzLtxk2— Richard 📊📉 (@RP131) June 7, 2021
On Tuesday, Johnson informed Cabinet ministers that crucial data needs to be scrutinised ahead of any decision on lifting restrictions, underscoring that “while the relationship between cases and hospitalisations has changed, we must continue to look at the data carefully ahead of making a decision on step four”, reported the Huffington Post.
Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove was cited as sparking optimism by saying during a ministerial meeting that he would “bet on a relaxation” of the coronavirus restrictions on 21 June - if he were a “betting man”.
He is also said to believe Johnson will press ahead with lifting a part of the restrictions on 21 June.
As health experts warn ministers that daily coronavirus cases may spike over 10,000 a day by 21 June, there is reportedly concern for those people who have received only one jab, particularly bearing in mind the spread of the virulent so-called “Indian” strain.
On Monday, daily cases topped 6,000 for the first time in England since mid-March.
"Britain's daily Covid cases spiked to 6,048 today in a 90% jump on last Tuesday — the biggest rise since before Christmas, as fears continue to grow that the rapid spread of the Indian variant will cause No10 to delay England's June 21 'Freedom Day'."https://t.co/7tNsvrx2vO pic.twitter.com/ZC5IwG1Bgb— David Windt (@DavidLWindt) June 8, 2021
Health Secretary Matt Hancock, speaking in the Commons, is said to have urged a delay to the lifting of lockdown to enable more people to receive their second jab. Hancock said the government would be “guided by the science”, adding:
“We face a challenging decision ahead of June 21. These are difficult judgements.”