Plans to lift the final lockdown restrictions on June 21 have been thrown into doubt by the growing threat of the Indian variant.
Boris Johnson’s roadmap has so far gone as planned, with the first three stages taking place on the promised dates in March, April and May.
But Step 4 – which will come no earlier than June 21 – could be derailed by the spread of the new strain in parts of the country, with some experts calling for the final easing of restrictions to be pushed back.
The Government insists it is just too early to say, as officials pore over Covid data to see if the battle between the vaccine and the virus is being won.
And even if it does go ahead as billed, some social distancing restrictions could still be in place for longer.
The public has learned from bitter experience how quickly things can change, so all eyes will be on the data in the coming weeks.
Here’s what we know about the plan to lift the last lockdown restrictions – and whether it will go ahead.
What rules are due to change on June 21?
Mr Johnson set out a four-step roadmap out of lockdown back in February, with a phased return to normal life.
Most restrictions have now lifted, such as the ban on foreign holidays and overnight stays, and pubs, restaurants, retail, galleries and and cinemas have been able to reopen.
In Step 4, the Government aimed to “remove all legal limits on social contact”, which means any number of people can meet up both indoors and outside.
This means you can legally have any people as you want over to your house for dinner or for a picnic in the garden.
It also means shuttered venues like nightclubs can reopen, as more people are allowed inside together, and crowds could return to big events like festivals and gigs.
Pilots have been taking place to test how big events can return. Crowds attended the Brit awards earlier this month, while clubbers returned to the dance floor for trial events in Liverpool at the start of May.
It will also factor in whether big weddings can take place, as the current rules allow no more than 30 guests.
Separate reviews are also underway into use of vaccine passports for events and whether social distancing measures can be ditched.
Some measures such as face coverings could stay in place for longer as reports suggest the Government may prioritise scrapping the ‘one-metre plus’ rule to allow businesses to serve more customers.
How will the Government decide whether to unlock on June 21?
Officials are poring over the data to see whether it is safe to ease restrictions further.
Under the roadmap, four key tests must be met before the next step can go ahead.
- That the vaccine deployment programme continues successfully
- That evidence shows jabs are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated
- That infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations which puts unsustainable pressure on the NHS
- That the Government’s assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new variants of concern
The final test about new variants is the critical one here – and whether the Government decides the risk from the Indian strain is too great to move forward.
The PM is expected to announce his decision on June 14, to give businesses a week to prepare.
How much of a threat is the Indian variant?
The new strain of the virus has been causing alarm because it is thought to be spreading more quickly than previous variants.
The PM is waiting for key data on its transmissibility before he makes the final decision about June 21.
The Government’s advisers recently suggested it could be up to 50% more infectious, but other analyses have offered lower figures.
It is now the dominant strain in the UK, taking over from the Kent variant which ripped across the country in the winter.
Cases and deaths have risen in the UK over the past week, linked to the new spread of the variant.
Between May 24 and 30 there were 60 deaths reported within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test, an increase of 42.9% compared with the previous seven days.
There were a further 3,240 lab-confirmed cases on Sunday, with the number of cases between May 24 and May 30 – 22,474 – 26.8% higher than the previous seven days.
But the success of the vaccine rollout means the country is in a much better place to see off the virus – as long as the jabs work against it.
A recent study by Public Health England found the Pfizer jab was 88% effective against the Indian variant after two doses, while AstraZeneca was 60% effective.
However both were only 33% effective against the Indian variant three weeks after the first dose.
More than 39 million people have been given a first jab and a further 25.3 million have had both doses.
The Government has accelerated the vaccine rollout to try to get as many people fully jabbed as possible.
All over-50s are set to have had both doses by that date under a target set out by vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi.
But many younger people are still waiting to be called up for their first dose – and there are still examples of vaccine hesitancy.
What do the experts say about June 21?
A growing number of scientists have been calling for the final stage to be delayed to give more time to see whether hospitalisations from the new variant are going up.
Professor Ravi Gupta, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said that with the UK in the grip of an “early” third wave -and urged ministers to push back June 21 “by a few weeks”.
He said the country was “not too far from reaching the sort of levels of vaccination that would help us contain the virus”, echoing calls from other experts to wait until more people have had both jabs.
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said there had been some encouraging data but the impact of the easing of restrictions in May would not be known until “around about June 21 or just before that”.
NHS Providers boss Chris Hopson said hospitals are busy with the backlog of non-Covid cases – and even a small uptick in cases could have a big impact.
He told Times Radio: “The concerns are that this is a much more transmissible variant. We’ve still got lots of people still to vaccinate. And absolutely hospitals are very busy.
“We’re talking to people who are saying ‘We’ve got 96-97% bed occupancy, this is not the kind of bed occupancy we would normally expect at this time of year’.
What does the Government say?
The tone from the Government has become more muted in recent days, despite pressure on Mr Johnson to stick to the June 21 date.
Tory MPs have been pressing the PM to lift restrictions to help struggling businesses and give people back their freedoms.
And Mr Johnson will be keen to stick to his promise after so many u-turns and last minute decisions last year.
The Prime Minister warned on Thursday that “we may need to wait” for more information but said “I don’t see anything currently in the data” to divert from the June 21 date.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told MPs it was “too early” to tell whether England can take the final step to freedom.
On Monday, Environment Secretary George Eustice also said “we can’t rule anything out” when asked about whether the date should be delayed.
He told the BBC: “I’ve said all along, as has Matt Hancock and the Prime Minister, we can’t rule anything out because we know this has been a difficult pandemic, a dynamic situation.
“We have to make that judgment a couple of weeks before.
“It will only be by then that we will see the full impact of the latest easements we made on May 17, so I know everyone wants to know what is going to happen but we can’t actually make that judgment until we see the impact.”