Boris Johnson is set to approve plans to delay the lifting of lockdown in England due to growing fears about the surge in cases of the Delta variant of coronavirus.
The Prime Minister is expected to agree to delay the final easing of restrictions by by up to four weeks when he meets senior officials and ministers later today.
It could mean that the full lifting of lockdown controls, which had been planned for June 21 under the Government's road map - could be pushed back to July 19.
It is understood that the move will be confirmed in a formal announcement on Monday.
The delay will likely be a hard blow for businesses, especially those in the hospitality and tourism sector, who had been hoping for a full summer re-opening to give them a much-needed boost.
Boris Johnson, at the G7 in Cornwall, said the Delta variant was a ‘serious, serious concern’ (Leon Neal/PA)
The Prime Minister could also face criticism and opposition from Tory MPs, however, a poll by Opinium found more than half of the public are in favour of a delay, with 54% in favour and 37% against.
Scientists have also been pressing for additional time to get more people vaccinated – particularly those in younger age groups – before controls are relaxed.
It comes as studies have shown that those who have received only their first dose of the vaccine have significantly less protection against the Delta variant – first identified in India – than those who have had two jabs.
Public health bosses think a delay would also give more opportunity yo control the spead using surge-testing techniques which proved successful in Bolton, which was the first Delta variant hotspot.
Similar controls are now being tried out in Lancashire and Greater Manchester.
Earlier this week Lancashire residents, apart from those in Blackpool, were told to avoid non-essential travel and meeting one another indoors.
It came as Lancahsire and the Blackburn with Darwen Council areas were labelled as "enhanced response areas" amid fears over the spread of the Delta variant.
Speaking in Cornwall on Saturday, a downbeat Mr Johnson acknowledged that the rise of the variant was a matter of “serious, serious concern”.
With infections and hospital admissions both rising, he said that it was not yet clear to what extent that would feed through into more deaths.
However, in order to ensure the final lockdown lifting was “irreversible”, he said that it may be necessary to give the vaccines “extra legs” in the race against the virus.
Some ministers however were reported to be even more pessimistic, with one telling The Sunday Telegraph that they had a “very short window” in which to open up, otherwise controls could have to stay in place until spring of next year.
“I am very worried the people who want to keep us shut down now want us to keep us shut down permanently and are aiming for ‘zero Covid’,” the unnamed minister was quoted as saying.
“Once you start delaying to the spring you’re making this type of control of people’s lives semi-permanent.”
Scientists now estimate that 96% of all new cases of coronavirus are attributed to the Delta variant.
The latest figures from Public Health England (PHE) show there have been 42,323 cases of the Delta variant confirmed in the UK, up by 29,892 from the previous week.
It estimates the strain is 60% more transmissible compared with the previously dominant Alpha, or Kent, variant, and that cases are doubling every four-and-a-half days in some parts of England.
Meanwhile, it emerged that G7 leaders discussed the theory that the pandemic was caused by a leak from a Chinese laboratory.
A team of experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and China concluded it was “extremely unlikely” the virus entered the human population as a result of a laboratory-related incident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
However, US President Joe Biden has since ordered an investigation into the origins of the outbreak, including the leak theory, while the WHO has said it wants to do more work.
The head of the WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told reporters at the summit: “We believe that all hypotheses should be open, and we need to proceed to the second phase to really know the origins.”
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