The government's plan to end all coronavirus restrictions on June 21 is reported to be hanging in the balance amid increasing concerns about a virus variant first discovered in India.
The impact and spread of the B.1.617.2 variant is troubling ministers and scientists, with covid cases across the country now on the rise.
On Sunday, 3,240 new cases were announced, on Saturday it was 3,398 and on Friday there were 4,182 new cases of the virus recorded.
There are just two weeks to go until the government is due to officially announce whether the planned total unlocking can take place on June 21 and there is increasing thought that this date may now be delayed.
The Sunday Times reported quotes from a government adviser yesterday, who said: " “If I was to call it now, I’d say Step 4 is highly likely to be delayed.”
A government official told the Politico Playbook newsletter it is now “50-50” whether the grand reopening will go ahead as hoped.
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The India variant has now become widespread in places other than the eight hotspots- such as Bolton and Blackburn – previously identified.
And while it is hoped that most vulnerable people will now be protected from becoming seriously ill or dying as a result of the variant, having received both doses of the vaccine, there are wider concerns about any impact on the NHS of rising cases.
This weekend, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, published a Twitter thread that warned that even a small jump in hospitalisations as a result of rising cases would have a big impact on hospitals which are already under lots of pressure as they try to clear the backlog of treatment caused by repeated lockdowns.
There will be a renewed push on ensuring all vulnerable people have had two jabs of a vaccine this week after data showed that both just one dose of either the Pfizer or Oxford vaccines provide only around 33% protection against the India variant.
Reports this weekend suggest the government could consider a short delay to the grand reopening of two to three weeks to try and provide more time for protection to kick in for any remaining people over 50 who have more recently received their second jab.
Speaking on Sky News this morning, SAGE’s adviser Susan Michie said: “We’re on a knife-edge. We could go either way with this new variant.
"Either it could run away as it did before Christmas, which would be extremely serious and we’d have to have more restrictions, or potentially it could be contained.”