Social distancing review could be delayed amid Indian variant uncertainty

A man pours a drink
A man pours a drink (PA Wire)
15:51pm, Mon 17 May 2021
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Updates on plans for domestic coronavirus “passports”, announcements on easing social distancing requirements and further guidance on weddings could be pushed back due to uncertainty over the Indian variant.

The spread of the highly transmissible variant has placed plans for the further easing of restrictions in jeopardy despite the lifting of some lockdown measures across Great Britain on Monday.

Despite the appearance of the B1617.2 variant in the UK, Cabinet minister Kwasi Kwarteng insisted England’s road map remained on track for the June 21 easing of the remaining restrictions if people acted responsibly.

But Downing Street said the spread of the variant could push back plans to set out guidance ahead of that date.

Last week Boris Johnson promised “we’ll be saying more later this month about exactly what the world will look like” on June 21 “and what role there could be – if any – for certification and social distancing”.

He also told MPs that “we will before the end of this month, set out all the details about the marriage world post-June 21”.

But Downing Street refused to commit to those timetables on Monday.

“We need time to assess the latest data on this variant first identified in India so I’m not going to give a set time for doing that,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.

“We want to do everything possible to give people enough time to prepare.”

Although ministers believe the vaccines will be effective against the highly transmissible Indian variant of concern, there are worries about the impact of its spread on those for whom the jabs do not provide protection or people who have not yet had a shot.

The Prime Minister urged people to treat the latest easing of restrictions with a “heavy dose of caution” while Mr Kwarteng warned against excessive drinking for those returning to bars.

From today:

People in England can meet outdoors in groups of up to 30, and indoors in groups of six, or two households, with pubs and restaurants able to serve customers inside.

Museums, cinemas and other indoor attractions can reopen.

The “stay in the UK” restriction will lift and people will be able to go on holiday to “green list” countries including Portugal without having to quarantine on their return, provided they take one post-arrival test.

Wales moves to alert level two with the reopening of indoor hospitality and entertainment venues.

(PA Graphics) (PA Graphics)

In most of Scotland, six people from three households will be able to meet indoors, the same number can meet in a hospitality venue, and eight people from eight houses can meet outdoors.

But Glasgow and Moray will remain under Level 3 of the five-tier system, meaning pubs cannot serve alcohol indoors.

Coronavirus – Mon May 17, 2021 (PA Wire)

Mr Kwarteng told Sky News that “people should have common sense, they should use judgment and I think if we act in a reasonable way, there is no reason to suppose that we can’t reopen the economy entirely on June 21”.

On LBC Radio Mr Kwarteng said: “We need to be cautious because if we get too carried away and the mutant variant spreads too quickly, that could endanger our ability to open up on June 21.”

Professor Graham Medley, a member of the Government’s Sage scientific advisory panel, told LBC the chances of the June 21 date being delayed was “well less than 50%” but added “it is uncertain”.

The main cause for concern is the Indian variant, which is on the way to becoming the dominant strain in some places including Bolton and Blackburn.

Covid-19 case rates in Bolton (PA Graphics)
Covid-19 case rates in Blackburn with Darwen (PA Graphics)

A major campaign has been launched to encourage people in those areas to receive a jab.

Mr Kwarteng said he did not want to “stigmatise people” over vaccine hesitancy, but told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’re not exactly where we want to be among certain communities but I think the take-up has been much greater in the last few months and more and more people are convinced that this is the way to keep themselves and their families safe.”

Dr Helen Wall, who is leading the vaccination effort in Bolton, said that over the weekend more than 6,200 vaccines were administered in the area.

She told BBC Breakfast that before the weekend there were around 10,000 people in the area in the highest priority groups, those deemed to be clinically vulnerable and the over-50s, who were yet to be vaccinated, but added: “I’m hoping that we’ve made a big dent into that now”.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock will update MPs on the situation in the Commons on Monday afternoon.

Despite the pleas for caution, some drinkers took advantage of the relaxations to sink pints shortly after midnight.

Barr staff celebrate in the Showtime Bar at midnight in Huddersfield (Danny Lawson/PA) (PA Wire)

One of those inside the Showtime Bar in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, was Finlay Woodhead, 20, who could barely contain his excitement at being back in a pub.

“I’m over the moon, I’ve been waiting so long,” he said.

“It’s so nice to be sat inside where it’s warm.

“I love it, honestly, I love it.”

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