BORIS Johnson has announced a delay to planned unlocking of Covid restrictions amid fears that a new variant could “outrun the vaccines”.
In a press conference from Downing Street, the Prime Minister said the country would never be able to eliminate coronavirus, and would “have to live with it”.
He warned that in some of the worst affected areas of the country, the number of people being admitted to hospital due to the new strain had increased by 61 per cent week on week, and added that it “may be the shape of things to come”.
Mr Johnson said the country had “one of the most open economies and societies in Europe” due to the “enormous efforts of the British people and the spectacular vaccine roll-out”, but added: “As we’ve always known, as the February roadmap explicitly predicted, this opening up over the last three steps has inevitably been accompanied by more infection, and more hospitalisation.”
He said: “We must be clear that we cannot simply eliminate Covid.
“We must learn to live with it. And with every day that goes by, we’re better protected by the vaccines, and we’re better able to live with the disease.
“Vaccination greatly reduces transmission, and two doses provide a very high degree of protection against serious illness, and death.
“But there are still millions of younger adults who have not been vaccinated. And sadly, a proportion of the elderly and vulnerable may still succumb even if they have had two jabs.”
Mr Johnson explained that the planned re-opening of the economy and lifting of all restrictions in England on June 21st would be delayed for four weeks, to allow the NHS to administer more vaccines to people.
He said there were grave concerns about the spread of the Delta variant, explaining that cases were “growing by about 64 per cent per week, and in the worst affected areas, it’s doubling every week. “
He warned that the number of people in intensive care was also rising, and if he proceeded with his planned unlocking next week “there is a real possibility that the virus will outrun the vaccines and that thousands more deaths would ensue that could otherwise have been avoided.”
Despite the delays, there will be no extension to the financial support being offered by the government for schemes such as furlough, self-employment income support or business rates relief.
However the schemes are still due to be in place until September, when further easing is expected to have been implemented.
Business groups and politicians have called for the support measures to be extended, arguing that businesses will be unable to afford to pay anything towards their furloughed employees’ wages if they are all still closed or trading at much reduced capacity.
Dr Liz Cameron OBE, Chief Executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said business would be disappointed by the latest announcement.
She said: “Businesses who have been patiently waiting for restrictions to ease will be deeply frustrated by the Prime Minister’s announcement confirming the delay of the planned June 21st lockdown lifting in England and the subsequent prospect of further delay in Scotland.
“After an incredibly challenging 15 months, businesses were finally daring to hope that we were now on the path towards the full re-opening of our economy. The continuation of restrictions will be a significant setback.”
Dr Cameron added that if Nicola Sturgeon follows the Prime Minister in delaying Scotland’s progress, the Scottish Government must “implement a fair balance of targeted restrictions that allows the gradual reopening of the economy to continue whilst tackling the growth of the Delta variant.”
She said: “We must also see the vaccine programme accelerated wherever possible – dedicating all available resources to this – while looking at opening up areas of Scotland with low levels of transmission and high levels of vaccination. ”
Alison Thewliss, the SNP MP for Glasgow Central and the party’s finance spokeswoman, called for an extension to the furlough scheme to ensure firms were not required to start paying contributions from July 1, as currently planned, if they are going to remain closed.
She said: “The Tory Chancellor must not pull the plug on financial support for businesses and workers before Covid restrictions are lifted, otherwise there will be a wave of job losses across the UK.”
Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth, the party’s shadow health secretary, was also critical of the UK Government’s delay.
He said: “The only reason this delay is being introduced is because the Conservatives failed to secure the country’s borders and a new variant from overseas was allowed to take hold; and failed to put in measures like proper sick pay support and surge vaccinations when needed.
“The British people did their bit by supporting the vaccine programme and getting vaccinated, but they have been let down by ministerial incompetence and indecision.”
Nicola Sturgeon will update MSPs tomorrow on the plans for Scotland to move to level zero, due to be on June 28, with an expectation that this will now be delayed.