The Health Secretary has said that it is too early to say whether the country can fully reopen on June 21, amid claims the Indian variant is now the dominant strain in Britain.
Mr Hancock said on May 27 that “potentially as many as three quarters of all new cases” are the Indian variant.
It comes after Downing Street refused to rule out local lockdowns on May 26 to tackle the spread of the Indian strain. While the number of patients admitted to hospital with coronavirus has continued to fall, there has been a rise in cases, which the Health Secretary confirmed remain focused in “hotspots”.
Mr Hancock said: “It is too early now to say, yet, whether we can take the full step four on June 21. I desperately want us to, but we will only do that if it’s safe.”
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson told reporters on a visit to a hospital in Essex on May 27 that he does not “see anything currently in the data” to divert from the June 21 target for the next stage of exiting lockdown but he said that “we may need to wait” for more data.
The Prime Minister added: “Don’t forget the important point about the intervals between the steps of the roadmap, we put that five weeks between those steps to give us time to see what effect the unlockings are having.”
The final stage of unlocking, including foreign travel, should be delayed for two months “until a much higher proportion of people are vaccinated with both doses”, a member of Independent Sage has said.
“What worries me even more is that we have not changed our border policy,” the Sage member stated on May 28. “New variants are coming up everywhere and this summer we need to protect our vaccination programme.”
Professor Neil Ferguson told the BBC the Indian variant has gone from “being a small minority a month ago to the majority variant now”, a claim that was put to Matt Hancock at the House of Commons on May 27 by Jeremy Hunt.
Mr Johnson has been expected to provide an update on the June reopening and on the latest data around the Indian variant of Covid, including case numbers and hospitalisations. However, he will not offer concrete confirmation of whether he will proceed with step four of the roadmap on June 21 until a week before – on June 14.
At step four of the roadmap, nightclubs are due to reopen, and restrictions on large events such as festivals are to be lifted, as are limits on the number of people at weddings.
The Prime Minister had told Tory MPs privately that he is “hopeful” of scrapping the “one metre plus” rule, a decision that will have a bearing on whether ordering and drinking at the bar can be reintroduced in pubs.
Fully vaccinated people will still have to self-isolate for 10 days if they come into contact with someone infected with Covid after June 21, Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, confirmed on May 25.
What rules have been lifted?
England entered Step Three of the government’s roadmap on May 17, allowing for pubs and restaurants to reopen indoors, and groups of six people or two households to mix indoors.
Additionally, people can now hug each other once again, the ban on overseas holidays has been lifted for “green list” countries, overnight stays are allowed, face masks are no longer needed in secondary school classrooms, university students have now returned to in-person teaching, and cinemas and theatres have reopened.
The rule of 30 at funerals was also dropped on May 17, with venues assessing how many people can fit in indoor and outdoor spaces with social distancing in place.
Infection rates, hospitalisations and deaths are at their lowest level since this time, and as of May 30, about 70 per cent of adults have received a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.
In another positive signal for the roadmap, Public Health England research has found that the Pfizer Covid vaccine is 88 per cent effective against the Indian variant after two doses.
Step-by-step unlocking: what happens when?
The roadmap is underpinned by four key tests that are linked to data, which act like a checklist that must be met before moving on to the next step of reopening.
The tests determine whether the vaccine rollout is going as planned; vaccines are effective in bringing down deaths and hospitalisations; case numbers are not rising so fast that the NHS risks being overwhelmed; and new variants do not create unforeseen risks.
Below are the changes of the roadmap since May 17 and those expected on June 21, although delays are possible if the data takes a negative turn.
Since May 17, groups of up to six people and two households can meet indoors, meaning that people can now enter each other’s homes.
Hugging is allowed between close family and friends, who can choose whether or not to socially distance. However, people are being “urged to remain cautious”, and wider social distancing rules remain for adult social care, medical, retail, hospitality and business settings.
Pubs and restaurants can open indoors and venues are allowed to serve food and drink, but hospitality guidance must be observed, such as individuals remaining seated. There are no requirements for guests to be socially distanced at tables during this stage.
The rule of six and two households rule was also introduced indoors from this date. It has been lifted outdoors, meaning people can meet in groups of up to 30 in beer gardens or when dining al fresco.
Care home visiting has been eased further, with residents able to have up to five named visitors and greater freedoms to make low risk visits outside of the establishments.
University students can return to face-to-face teaching on campus, replacing online lectures that have been in place for months. They should get tested twice a week upon return.
Funerals are no longer be limited to 30 mourners. Instead, the capacity is determined by how many people could be accommodated in venues such as places of worship or funeral homes while maintaining social distancing.
However, the cap of 30 people remains for weddings and other types of significant events, including bar mitzvahs and christenings.
Up to 30 people can attend a support group or parent and child group. The limit does not include children under five.
Hotels and B&Bs can open, meaning small group trips are back on the cards, with up to six people or two households able to meet indoors.
Additionally, professional performances can now resume indoors. There is no official guidance on the number of performers permitted, but this is determined based on the capacity of the venue.
Indoor sports and gym classes can also open, along with entertainment venues, including cinemas and theatres. New rules are in place for different sizes of venues.
Normal outdoor events can open for up to 4,000 people or 50 per cent of the venue capacity, whichever is smaller. Similarly, normal indoor events can open for up to 1,000 people or 50 per cent capacity, again whichever is lower.
For huge outdoor seated venues, there is a special limit. Up to 10,000 attendees are allowed or 25 per cent capacity, whichever is lower. This means, for example, Wembley Stadium can open with 10,000 fans in attendance.
The ban on overseas holidays ended on May 17, in the first step to reviving foreign travel. It is no longer illegal to go abroad, meaning summer holidays overseas are now allowed, with a traffic light system for countries in use. However, ongoing concern about the Indian variant has given the EU pause on whether to lift the travel ban on British tourists.
On May 26, French ministers were preparing to place Britain on the country’s equivalent of the amber list, with self-isolation supervised by police with powers to levy fines of between €1,000 and €1,500.
It comes as Spain waived its PCR testing requirement for British visitors from May 24, although it remains on the UK’s amber list.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps previously announced the list of 12 countries or territories that are on the “green” list, meaning that people can travel to countries like Portugal without having to quarantine upon return.
Mr Johnson has privately told MPs “quite a few” countries are on the cusp of joining the green list for quarantine-free holidays at the beginning of June.
The Telegraph reported on May 25 that ministers have pledged to open up island tourist destinations for British holidaymakers even if infection rates prevent an entire country joining the green list. It would mean that the Canary, Balearic and Greek islands could be rated green, separate from Spain and Greece, while also paving the way for other islands in the Caribbean and Mediterranean to be declared open for UK tourists.
It is thought unlikely that major holiday destinations like France, Spain, Italy and Greece will be included on the green list when it is reviewed for June 7, three weeks on from the lifting of the travel ban on May 17.
The boss of Heathrow Airport has warned that holidaymakers will be hammered by soaring prices if the Government keeps its green list for July and August under wraps.
The Health Secretary has also confirmed that people who have had both Covid vaccinations can use the NHS app to “prove” their status in order to travel to other countries.
Those who do not have access to a smartphone can call the NHS Helpline 119 to gain a vaccine confirmation letter so they can travel to one of the “green” list destinations.
But Mr Johnson has confirmed work from home guidance will be lifted from June 21, as part of the drive to return commuter trade to city centres. Compulsory social distancing is expected to end at this time, hopefully encouraging workers to return to their commute using public transport.
However, The Telegraph understands that vaccinated people face still having to self-isolate for 10 days if they come into contact with someone infected with Covid after June 21.
The continued imposition of quarantine for those who have been vaccinated is likely to undermine plans for “normality” to return next month because people may be deterred from going to crowded places if they face the threat of enforced self-isolation.
Could there be another lockdown in 2021?
The number of Covid cases and deaths is low, which has led Mr Johnson to state that “nothing in the data” suggests that a third national lockdown will be implemented.
But Ministers were forced into a climbdown on May 25 amid criticism that their failure to launch a messaging campaign to explain travel restrictions for local covid hotspots had seen it descend into farce.
Guidance had urged 1.7 million people in eight parts of England to restrict travel in and out of their area and socialise outdoors instead of indoors where possible. Local health and council leaders, who reacted angrily to the Government’s failure to inform them of the new guidelines, subsequently told residents they did not have to follow them.
The Government then had to publish new guidance to explain that the curbs on travel and socialising were advice and not legally binding restrictions. It applies to residents of Bolton, Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Bedford, Kirklees, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside.
The advice, which the Government said is not new regulations, aims to highlight “additional precautions” residents can take, such as staying two metres apart from people not in the same household.
A spokesman for Downing Street admitted on May 26 that the handling of fresh guidance for areas in which the Indian strain was rising had caused public “confusion”.
However, while Downing Street insisted there had been no move to impose local lockdowns by stealth, it did not rule out such measures being used in future.
The spokesman said: “The roadmap sets out that we move together as a nation, but obviously throughout this pandemic we wouldn’t want to rule anything out. But we are aiming wherever possible to stick to the approach set out in the roadmap.”
Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, had said the Government was not imposing further local lockdowns “at the moment”, but did not comment on the possibility of such targeted restrictions in future. He said it would be “churlish not to say that the communications could have been clearer“.
In response to the rise in the numbers of cases of the Indian variant, the government wants to vaccinate as many as one million people a day as part of a drive to save the British summer.
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said on May 16 that early findings from laboratory trials by Oxford University gave a “high degree of confidence” that coronavirus vaccines work against the Indian variant but warned local lockdowns could be implemented.
But on May 19, Prof Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College, said latest figures show that the initial spike was slowing. Cases in Blackburn have now started to plateau, and the curve in Bolton also appears to be growing shallower.
Prof John Edmunds, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that it appeared the vaccine rollout was combating the variant, even if it did turn out to be more transmissible.