Something “unprecedented and remarkable” would need to happen for the July 19 “terminus date” for lifting Covid restrictions to be pushed back, Michael Gove has said.
The Cabinet Office Minister said he shares Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s confidence that July 19 will see the final easing of lockdown measures, with the four-week delay announced on Monday buying more time for people to receive vaccinations.
Scientists had warned that the rapidly spreading Delta variant, which was first identified in India, would lead to a “significant” rise in hospital admissions if stage four of England’s road map went ahead as planned on June 21.
Some Tory MPs have reacted with fury to the delay, and the news was described as a “devastating blow” for the night-time industry.
Asked about the circumstances in which the July 19 date could be extended further, Mr Gove told Sky News: “It would require an unprecedented and remarkable alteration in the progress of the disease.”
He told BBC Breakfast that the future cannot be predicted with “perfect” confidence.
“But, insofar as we can be confident about anything in this complex world, we can be confident that the increased level of vaccination that we will have by July 19 should allow us to further relax restrictions,” he said.
Mr Gove also said he wants “as few restrictions as possible” after July 19, but added that he will be “guided by clinical advice from doctors and scientists”.
Asked if mask-wearing will be used over winter, he said: “I want as few restrictions as possible, but I’m not an epidemiologist or a virologist and I will listen to those who are and weigh their advice in the balance.”
It came as Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said that all those over the age of 18 should be able to book for a vaccination “by the end of this week”, and that the NHS aims to offer second doses to two thirds of adults by July 19.
Labour has accused the Government of incompetence over its handling of Covid variants, saying lax border policies led to the Delta variant entering the country.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “Rather than red-listing this variant, we essentially gave it the red carpet treatment as 20,000 people were allowed to arrive from India over a number of weeks in April, even though the warning signs were there. That essentially seeded this Delta variant across the country.”
Pressed on the issue on Times Radio, Mr Gove said: “We can always look back and wish that we’d done things differently but we operated on the basis of facts that we had at the time, and India was placed on the red list before the Delta variant was a … variant of concern.
“And again, you know, the decisions that ministers, that doctors, that scientists have to take can never be made with perfect knowledge.”
Several scientists have suggested the Delta variant would have made its way into the UK at some point regardless of stricter border policies.
Asked whether it would have made a difference if Britain had stopped people coming from India in early April, Professor Graham Medley, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Potentially – I mean it’s speculation.
“The newer Delta variant is now quite common around the globe so it would have ended up in the United Kingdom at some point, but perhaps it would have been delayed.
“It’s really the competition between the virus and the vaccine so, had the variant arrived in the country when we’d had more people vaccinated, then it may well not have grown in the same way that it has.”
Some Tory MPs have expressed their dismay over the delay to easing restrictions, with former minister Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group (CRG), telling LBC radio he thinks “we could have moved ahead perfectly safely on the 21st of June”.
He said: “Some of us, I’m afraid, are a bit worried that we’re not going to actually move forward on the 19th of July.”
He added: “I listened carefully to what the Prime Minister said yesterday and I was in the House of Commons for the Health Secretary’s statement, and it seemed to me we don’t know anything today that we didn’t know when the Prime Minister was telling us he was happy to move ahead on the 21st of June.
“Ultimately we’ve reduced the risk of this disease hugely by our fantastic vaccination programme, and, as the Government says, we’ve got to learn to live with it, but the problem is every time we get to that point, ministers seem to not actually want to live with it and keep restrictions in place.”
However, Prof Medley said delaying the road map was necessary, adding that it is still possible that the nation could return to seeing hundreds of deaths a day.
Asked whether the nation could have returned to hundreds of deaths a day had restrictions been lifted, Prof Medley said: “Oh, easily. I think we still might at some point.”
Pressed on whether hundreds of deaths each day could be expected, he said: “I think that’s quite possible, it’s not a certainty. There is a lot of uncertainty, but I think that’s quite possible.”
Later, Prof Medley told a briefing that “if we start to see transmissions slowing significantly by the middle of July then it really does narrow down the possibilities in terms of future waves”.
He added: “If we don’t see it start to slow, then this uncertainty will remain to some extent, but we’ll sort of shave off from the bottom of the potential outcomes.”
He also suggested it was a balancing act between allowing more people to be vaccinated now and pushing any future wave into the autumn when the risks may be higher.
He said modellers would set out predictions for what might happen from July in three weeks’ time but he suspects there will be more uncertainly around the numbers even then “than we would like”.
Earlier, Mr Gove indicated that workplaces could see a continued working from home pattern into the future.
Asked if restrictions could continue in some form until spring next year, he told the Today programme: “We want to make sure that we get rid of every possible restriction.
“We particularly want to get rid of the restriction on social distancing, the one-metre rule, so that people can lead their lives as normally as possible.
“Now, I suspect – and I’m not advocating this, I’m just thinking of the future – I suspect it may be the case that we may see different workplaces allowing people to work from home at certain points as well as coming into the office. I think there may be changes to the way that we live.”
Meanwhile, the new regulations were published to show they seek to extend the legal restrictions until the end of July 18.
They set out to remove “most limits” on the numbers of people who can attend a wedding or civil partnership, and receptions for them, but exclude those held in a “private dwelling”.