The Daily Telegraph
It’s definitely July 19 ... unless it’s not
Johnson refuses to offer ‘cast iron guarantee’ that there will be no more delays to reopening
BORIS JOHNSON called his new July 19 reopening date a “terminus” yesterday but did not rule out further delays as he pushed back the ultimate end of lockdown by four weeks.
The Prime Minister said that pausing the final step of reopening in England, which was originally due on June 21, would avoid thousands of deaths from Covid-19, with cases surging.
Attempting to provide reassurance that there would be no further delay, Mr Johnson said repeatedly in a Downing Street press conference that he was confident full reopening would happen on July 19.
But he acknowledged the emergence of a new Covid variant could throw the plan off course, as his scientific advisers stressed the danger would not fully disappear.
The four-week delay means social distancing rules, six-person limits to indoor groups, work-from-home guidance, mask wearing and nightclub bans will all remain in place for now.
However, big weddings can return, with the 30-person rule scrapped and no maximum figure replacing it, though venues must be Covid-secure and dancing is still barred. Care home residents will also be allowed to spend a night away and not have to self-isolate for 14 days once they return.
But Mr Johnson faced an immediate backlash from lockdown-sceptic Tory MPS and business figures angered by the absence of any new Treasury financial support.
The Prime Minister said: “As things stand and on the evidence that I can see right now, I’m confident that we will not need more than four weeks, and we won’t need to go beyond July 19.”
He also described the new date as a “terminus date, rather than a ‘not before’ date”.
However, Mr Johnson declined to give a “cast-iron guarantee” that the date would not slip further, saying that he had to be “honest” with people.
He added: “That, of course, does not exclude the possibility, I’m afraid, and we have got to be honest about this, that there is some new variant that is far more dangerous, that kills people in a way that we currently cannot foresee or understand.” Mr Johnson said he “bitterly” regretted the delay and that the impact of the pandemic had “broken everybody’s heart”, but stressed he was “yearning” to ease the rules.
The decision to pause reopening came after alarm in Whitehall about the delta variant, first found in India, which has become the dominant strain of new infections in the UK. The latest scientific analysis suggests the delta variant is between 40 per cent and 80 per cent more transmissible than other strains.
The decision was taken as government modelling suggested the emerging third wave could leave as many people in hospital daily as the first wave.
Downing Street argued that the fourweek delay allowed the Government to vaccinate millions more people, with the rollout strategy adjusted in an attempt to maximise protection.
The target for offering first doses has been brought forward from the end of July to July 19. People in their 40s will also now only have to wait eight weeks rather than 12 between doses, matching the rules for people aged 50 and over. The NHS will contact people in their 40s who are now eligible for their second jab as a result of the change.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, noted it may not be until September or October that everyone over 18 is offered their second dose of the vaccine on current plans.
Responding to a claim by Birmingham MP Liam Byrne in the Commons last night that GPS in his constituency had no doses of the Pfizer vaccine, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “The fact that the fridges ran out of Pfizer demonstrates we’re getting through this as fast as we can. But supply is the rate-limiting factor on vaccination, it always has been.”
A check will be conducted two weeks into the four-week pause period to see if the Covid situation has improved, but Downing Street officials said it was “unlikely” the plan would change then.
The legislation that enshrines in law the reopening roadmap, which was first published in February, will be extended to July 19 to cover the delay. A vote in Parliament is expected this week.
Mark Harper, who leads the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic politicians, said: “There’s nothing new in the data that we didn’t know when the Prime Minister was happy to proceed with the June 21.”
No changes to the travel rules were announced. A review of border rules is due later this month.
Clever, isn’t it, the way the Government handles these things. Any time they’ve got rotten news to announce about lockdowns, they never just go ahead and announce it. Instead, mysterious anonymous figures leak it to the media several days in advance. Which ensures that, by the time the Prime Minister finally confirms the rotten news in a statement to the nation, the majority of the public is inured to it, and greets it with no more than a shrug of weary acceptance.
Whereas, if the Government simply announced the rotten news out of the blue, a lot of people might be shocked and angry. Some of them, in fact, might even be angry with the Government. By taking care to soften up the public a good few days in advance, the Government minimises the chance of any such unpleasantness. Yes, they know what they’re doing, these boys. When it comes to public relations, at any rate. The reason, Boris Johnson explained yesterday, for the four-week delay to the full unlocking was the alarming spread of the Indian variant. Then again, he didn’t actually call it “the Indian variant”, of course – in line with recent advice from the World Health Organisation, he instead called it “the delta variant”.
And very sensible of him, too, because if you call it “the Indian variant”, it reminds people where it came from, which in turn reminds them that ministers knew at the start of April that it had arrived in this country, and yet didn’t stop people arriving from India until three weeks later. And it wouldn’t do to remind people of that, because, again, they might get angry about it. Best to draw a veil and move on. Which the Prime Minister wisely did. Indeed, he made no mention of that unfortunate episode at all.
It was obvious that Mr Johnson hated reading out every word of his statement. He seemed hardly able to bear looking at the thing, which would perhaps explain why he fluffed two parts of it – saying “the company” when he meant “the country”, and saying restrictions would now continue until “July 29”, when he meant July 19. (Or was that another ingenious piece of psychological trickery? Make people think that the delay is longer than it is, so that when they discover the real date, they’re relieved and grateful.)
On to questions. Repeatedly, journalists asked whether the PM could guarantee that this was definitely it – no more delays after this one.
Inevitably, he couldn’t guarantee it (well, he could, if he wanted, but if he’s learnt anything during this pandemic, it’s not to make promises).
Still, he did his best to sound encouraging.
“I’m confident,” replied the Prime Minister, as bullishly as he could.
“Barring any unforeseeable new variants, I’m confident that we will get there.”
Note the caveat. Once again, a nation crosses its fingers, and sighs.