LONDON — Boris Johnson said there is “nothing in the data at the moment” to suggest England’s full exit from lockdown restrictions on June 21 cannot go ahead, despite fears over the spread of the so-called Delta variant.
“I can see nothing in the data at the moment that means we can’t go ahead with step four, or the opening up on June 21, but we’ve got to be so cautious,” the U.K. prime minister told reporters.
“What we need to work out is to what extent the vaccination program has protected enough of us, particularly the elderly and vulnerable, against a new surge, and there I’m afraid the data is just still ambiguous.”
Johnson, who is under pressure from his own MPs to push ahead with easing restrictions later this month, acknowledged infection numbers are rising in the U.K. But he said the government “always knew that was going to happen” as rules on indoor mixing are eased.
A small rise in cases linked to the spread of the more transmissible variant first identified in India, now known as Delta, has prompted some scientists to call for a delay to the last stage of the government’s road map in England for unlocking, with a final decision due on June 14.
On Tuesday the U.K. announced zero COVID-19 deaths for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
John Bell, a government adviser and regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, told BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday that he was “encouraged” by the latest data on infections and hospitalizations.
He added, “If we scamper down a rabbit hole every time we see a new variant we are going to spend a long time huddled away.”
The prime minister has faced calls from his own party to green-light the final stage of lockdown easing, removing all legal limits on the numbers of people who can meet.
Former Cabinet minister John Redwood told the Times he would “be very surprised if they changed course,” while Graham Brady, chairman of the influential 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs, insisted to the same paper: “The remaining social-distancing restrictions can be lifted safely on June 21 as planned.”
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, told LBC radio earlier there was a sense in government of “promising progress” toward scrapping all restrictions.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, sounded a more cautious note on Tuesday, warning: “We haven’t beaten this virus yet, and with cases continuing to rise please remember hands, face, space and let in fresh air when indoors, and of course, make sure when you can you get both jabs.”
Hancock addressed a meeting of G7 health ministers on Wednesday, where he took another swipe at allegations of ill-preparedness made against him and the wider U.K. government by Johnson’s former top adviser Dominic Cummings last week.
Hancock said, “We had to move fast, embrace change and learn quickly from our mistakes and bring the best people to the table — the finest team that I’ve ever been part of.”