Boris Johnson has dropped a heavy hint that the final lifting of lockdown restrictions in England will be delayed by up to a month, as the government prepares to make a final decision over the weekend.
The prime minister, who is hosting the G7 summit in Cornwall, is due to announce on Monday whether stage four of his Covid roadmap can go ahead as planned on 21 June.
With cases of the Delta variant that was first identified in India continuing to increase rapidly, a four-week delay is now widely expected, potentially with a break clause at two weeks.
Asked by ITV’s Robert Peston whether there would be a delay, Johnson said: “We’re setting out the position on Monday, but what I can certainly tell you is that to deliver an irreversible roadmap you’ve got to be cautious.”
He added: “We’re still looking at the data, we’re seeing unquestionably not just cases but also hospitalisations going up. There will be arguments about the extent to which they’re going up, the extent to which that is feeding into fatalities. But in order to deliver an irreversible roadmap, you’ve got to be cautious.”
The delay would be used to buy time to measure the impact of infections on hospital admissions and give more people their second vaccine dose.
The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has signalled to allies that he would not oppose such a delay, believing it would be worse for businesses if restrictions were lifted now only to be reimposed later.
21 June was meant to be what Conservative MPs have dubbed “freedom day”, when all legal limits on social gatherings were due to be removed, mass events given the go-ahead and some businesses including nightclubs allowed to reopen for the first time since March last year.
Vaccination provides strong protection against the Delta variant, particularly after two doses, but experts have become increasingly concerned at its rapid spread among younger, unvaccinated people.
Johnson rejected the idea that he was partly to blame for the rapid spread of the Delta variant having failed to put India on the red list until 23 April, two weeks after Pakistan and Bangladesh were added.
At the time, the prime minister was planning a visit to Delhi at the invitation of the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, which he subsequently cancelled as the situation in India deteriorated.
Challenged by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg about whether India should have been added to the red list earlier, the prime minister said the government had done so “before the variant had even been identified as a variant under investigation, let alone identified as a variant of concern. And that variant is now widely seeded around the world”.