Social distancing measure review could be pushed back over Indian variant concerns

17 May 2021, 14:21

A review into the possibility of ending social distancing measures could be delayed past the end of the month over concerns over the Indian Covid-19 variant.
A review into the possibility of ending social distancing measures could be delayed past the end of the month over concerns over the Indian Covid-19 variant. Picture: PA

By Kate Buck

A review into the possibility of ending social distancing measures could be delayed past the end of the month over concerns over the Indian Covid-19 variant.

The update for plans for domestic coronavirus "passports" and further guidance on weddings would also be delayed in these talks.

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.

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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.

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"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.

Read more: Boris Johnson calls for a 'heavy dose of caution' as lockdown is eased

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.
  • - 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.

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".

Mr Kwarteng told LBC: "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.

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

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