Friends will meet up to hug and huge swathes of the UK economy reopen on Monday – but there are growing fears the spread of the Indian Covid-19 variant could delay the end of lockdown next month.
Government ministers and officials have shared their fears that a “small but significant” minority of people are declining to get the coronavirus vaccine when offered.
One unnamed minister told the Politico website that vaccine refusers were the “principal threat” to the planned lifting of further lockdown curbs on 21 June.
“If even quite a small number of people don’t take the vaccine, a variant with high transmissibility can easily cause a lot of deaths,” the minister said. “The risk is that a small number of idiots ruin it for everyone else.”
On Sunday health secretary Matt Hancock warned the Indian variant could “spread like wildfire” among unvaccinated groups, Ministers are now considering local lockdowns in variant hotspot areas like Bolton.
The warning comes as government advisers and independent scientists urged people to continue to meet up outdoors – despite Monday’s lifting of curbs on indoor gatherings.
Groups of up to six people, or a maximum of two households, are now allowed to meet up in each other’s homes across England. In Scotland, six people or up to three households are allowed to mix inside.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, Wellcome Trust director and member of the government’s Sage panel, said that he would not meet up with others indoors “at the moment”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it is reasonable to just be sensible about knowing where transmission is occurring, mostly indoors, mostly in larger gatherings indoors with lots of different people, ... and I would just restrict that at the moment personally.”
But Prof Farrar added: “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to lift the restrictions – we do need to lift the restrictions at some point, we’ve been in restrictions now for a very long time.”
Boris Johnson has called for a “heavy dose of caution” as indoor socialising resumes, sharing his own concerns about the Indian Covid variant. He and his ministers are set to decide whether the 21 June easing can go ahead on 14 June.
Mr Johnson’s cabinet is said to be split between the “hawks” who believe vaccine refusers should not hold back next month’s reopening, and the more cautious “doves” who are worried about the rapid spread of the variant.
Professor Adam Finn, from the government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), suggested there was a possibility the 21 June easing would be pushed back.
“You lay down plans and then something changes, and I think we’re still in a place where that is perfectly likely to happen,” he told Sky News on Monday.
“I really hope that these current concerns around this variant evaporate, that everything goes to plan, but I think we just have to accept the possibility that we’re in for another big wave and that we will have to change what we’re doing.”
Professor Graham Medley – who chairs of the SPI-M modelling sub-group of the Sage panel – said the rise of the Indian variant could force a “re-think” on the road map out of lockdown.
But Professor Medley said he is optimistic the end of lockdown can happen as planned on 21 June. Asked about the chances of a delay, he said: “I think it’s well less than 50 per cent.”
Monday’s rule changes mean overnight stays are now allowed in England. But Professor Peter Openshaw urged people to be cautious about travelling across the country, even if they have been vaccinated.
Prof Openshaw, a member of the government’s Nervtag group, told BBC Breakfast: “I think if you are going to be in an enclosed space, you must wear a really well-fitting mask, you must wash your hands and maybe travel with some hand sanitiser.”