The lifting of all lockdown restrictions in England is likely to be delayed for up to a month from the planned date of 21 June, government sources have told the Guardian.
It comes as coronavirus cases in England are rising at their fastest rate since the winter wave.
Ahead of an announcement scheduled to be made by the prime minister on Monday, a “quad” meeting for Boris Johnson and three senior ministers has been pencilled in over the weekend.
The four – Johnson; the chancellor, Rishi Sunak; the Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove; and the health secretary, Matt Hancock – will decide whether to suspend the planned unlocking of all legal limits on social contact. There is also a further meeting of the Covid operations committee scheduled for Sunday night before a full cabinet meeting on Monday. These are said to be rubber-stamping exercises. All the meetings will take place around the G7 and Nato summits.
While no final decision has been taken, government figures said a delay of two to four weeks was highly likely due to the spike in cases that some scientists have warned is the beginning of a new peak. The delay would be used to buy time to measure the impact of infections on hospitalisations and give more people their second vaccine dose. Tory MPs who at the start of the week were bullish about the prospect of the 21 June unlocking going ahead as planned have become increasingly pessimistic.
Daily infections are now rising at 3% to 6% across England, official estimates released on Friday suggest, pointing to a growth rate not seen since cases started to soar at the end of last year.
The national surge is being fuelled by cases in the north-west, where the daily growth rate may be as high as 8%, and London and the east of England where the epidemic is growing at between 2% and 6%, the figures show.
The British Medical Association (BMA) urged the government to delay the planned easing of restrictions in light of the rise in cases. “The best protection [from vaccines] is only achieved at about two weeks after the second dose, particularly with the Delta variant, and we will not have enough of the population properly protected by 21 June,” said the chair of the BMA council, Dr Chaand Nagpaul.
The figures come as a further 8,125 Covid cases in the UK were reported on Friday, levels not seen since the end of February.
Data released by Public Health England on Friday revealed that up to 96% of Covid cases in England were now down to the Delta variant first discovered in India, with the total number of confirmed cases in the UK passing 42,000.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, said delaying the easing of lockdown would be a huge blow for families and businesses, and said ministers were at fault.
He said: “Despite warnings from Labour, Sage and others they continued with a reckless border policy that allowed the Delta variant to reach the UK and spread. Now the British people look set to have to pay the price.”
Also known as B.1.617.2, the Delta variant appears to be 64% more transmissible in households than the Alpha variant first spotted in Kent, and twice as likely to lead to hospitalisations, PHE found. One of the main concerns with the variant, which is doubling every 4.5 to 11.5 days depending on the region, is that it is somewhat resistant to vaccines, particularly after just one dose.
The steep jump in UK cases of Delta variant, by 29,892 to a total of 42,323 in the latest PHE report, is partly due to a new technique to determine the variant present in a positive Covid sample. Previously, positive samples were sent to laboratories for whole-genome sequencing – a process that took five to 10 days to return results.
The new data includes results from a more rapid approach known as genotyping in which, rather than looking at the whole genome of the virus to work out which variant is involved, only key sections of the genome are examined. This gives results within 48 hours.
Dr Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, urged people eligible for vaccination to come forward to receive the jab.
“With numbers of Delta variant cases on the rise across the country, vaccination is our best defence,” she said, noting two doses provide significantly more protection than a single dose. “However, while vaccination reduces the risk of severe disease, it does not eliminate it,” she added.
According to the report, England had 33,206 Delta cases from the start of February to 7 June. While 19,573 individuals were unvaccinated, 1,785 were fully vaccinated and 7,559 had received one jab. The vaccination status of the remainder was unclear.
Of the 42 deaths recorded in England within 28 days of a positive test involving the Delta variant, 23 individuals were unvaccinated, seven had received one dose, and 12 were fully vaccinated.
Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh University, said it was hard to interpret what the deaths in the fully vaccinated people might mean for the coming months. “It’s different if those breakthrough infections are in very frail people already in hospital, or in young, healthy adults infected in the community. We need to know that to know how worried to be,” he said.
François Balloux, director of the UCL Genetics Institute, and a professor of computational biology at UCL, said of the PHE data that overall “nothing looks worse than it did yesterday”, but noted more data is needed, including how long it was after their second dose before those who eventually died became unwell.
The report comes as survey data from the Office for National Statistics based on swabs collected from randomly selected households also showed Covid infection levels were rising in Britain.
According to the latest estimates, about one in 560 people in England had Covid in the week ending 5 June – compared with about one in 640, the week before. Rises were also seen in Scotland and Wales, while the trend was unclear for Northern Ireland.
The picture differs across age groups with infection levels rising in younger adults up to 34 years old, and those aged 50 to 69 years old.
Further data from the ONS suggests people in Great Britain are becoming less concerned about keeping their distance from each other. According to the latest figures, the proportion of adults maintaining social distancing with people outside their household fell to 68% over the period 2-6 June compared with 74% the week before, while – as per last week – 50% of adults said they had met up indoors with someone not in their household, childcare or support bubble in the past seven days.