The government is weighing up whether Covid restrictions can be lifted on June 21 (Image: AFP via Getty Images)
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Boris Johnson has a tough decision to make.
The PM is pondering whether to lift Covid restrictions from June 21, giving the green light for many of the things we've missed over the past 15 months.
But scientists are urging caution, with the Delta variant – first detected in India – causing a surge in new coronavirus cases and sparking fresh guidelines in eight hotspots.
However, the success of the vaccine programme has been a huge positive – with more than three-quarters of adults having now had at least one jab – suggesting a return to normality is within touching distance.
Mr Johnson previously pledged to make a decision based on "data, not dates" when he first announced his roadmap out of lockdown.
With this in mind, Number 10 is said to be pondering a two-week delay, pushing "Freedom Day" back to July 5 – allowing all over-50s to receive their second jab plus three weeks for full immunity to take effect.
Here we look at the criteria that must be met in order for the unlocking to go ahead on June 21 – paving the way for full-capacity weddings, the reopening of nightclubs, concert venues and theatres, and the end of social distancing.
There has been a rise in Covid cases in recent weeks, with new hotspots emerging
Is the vaccine deployment programme continuing successfully?
According to the government's criteria published at the beginning of the roadmap, this is the first requirement for restrictions to be eased.
At the time it was released, the number of people vaccinated stood at just over 17 million.
In just over three months that figure has risen considerably, with almost 40.5 million people being given their first jab and 27.2 million receiving their second.
This works out as 76.8 per cent of the adult population vaccinated with one dose, and 53 per cent with both.
By June 21, this number will be higher still.
Yesterday alone 127,325 first doses of Covid vaccines were administered and 259,941 second jabs were given.
If the programme continues at this pace, in the 13 days before "Freedom Day" a further five million first and second doses will be given out – with people aged 25 to 29 the latest to be invited.
Undoubtedly this is a big tick – although the government will need to be happy this is a high enough number to ease restrictions.
More than three quarters of adults have had at least one jab – but is this enough to relax the rules?
Does evidence show vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated?
There's more good news on this front.
Although the number of Covid cases is rising sharply, it isn't translating to higher hospitalisations or fatalities at this point.
According to the Department of Health, 35,796 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in the past week – a 52.9 per cent increase compared to the previous week.
But hospital admissions have actually fallen over the same period, albeit slightly, and 57 people have died within 28 days of contracting Covid.
On March 8, when schools reopened on the first day of the roadmap, 142 people died in a single day.
Latest figures (in grey) show that cases have risen to levels last seen in March
The latest data available shows 869 people were admitted to hospital in the seven days to June 1, down 0.3 per cent on the week before.
This is lower than Thursday last week, when there were 932 people in hospital with the virus – a huge fall on the 39,249 on January 18 at the height of the winter peak.
With the vast majority of at-risk people now vaccinated, it suggests the jabs are working.
Speaking at the weekend, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “What we think we can start to say now, based on that experience, is that it does look as though the vaccines have broken the chain between catching Covid-19 and potentially being very, very seriously ill and potentially dying.
"There were very, very few people who have had those double jabs and had been able to have that build up of protection after those jabs.”
The number of deaths has dropped dramatically even as lockdown is eased
Are Infection rates risking a surge in hospitalisations which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS?
This links back to vaccinations, but the data paints an encouraging picture.
The number of people testing positive for coronavirus is undoubtedly rising, fuelled by the Delta variant – we'll come to that shortly.
Yesterday there were 5,683 confirmed cases, and the UK is now seeing as many cases as it was in March.
However rates are nowhere near the levels they were in December and January.
On December 29 alone, there were more than 81,500 confirmed cases.
Latest figures (in grey) show that cases have risen to levels last seen in March
As mentioned above, the rise in new cases – 52.9 per cent in a week – is not coupled with a jump in hospitalisations.
Of the 12,383 known cases of the Delta variant, only 126 people were admitted – and just three of them had received both jabs.
Two thirds were unvaccinated, while 28 had been given a first dose.
The proportion of people with Covid who require hospitalisation has plummeted. In the first and second waves, this stood at around 3.5 per cent.
Now that figure is around one per cent.
Has the government's assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new Variants of Concern?
This is the sticking point.
Scientists warned months ago that all the hard work that got us to this point could be scuppered if a new variant emerges and sends infections spiralling.
The fear is that a mutation could render vaccines useless, and the government has come under fire over the way it has allowed international travel into the UK throughout the pandemic.
Up until now, research has suggested the jabs currently available are effective against the known variants.
The Delta variant has become the UK's dominant strain, and more than 12,000 cases have been identified.
It is now estimated to be 40 per cent more transmissible than the Kent mutation, which forced the dithering Prime Minister to eventually bring in a third national lockdown in England at the start of January.
Fears of fresh delay to lockdown 'Freedom Day' on June 21 after 'grim' Covid briefing
Updated guidance has been issued for people in eight areas of England – Kirklees, Bedford, Blackburn with Darwen, Bolton, Burnley, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside – calling on them to be more careful because of high case numbers.
Residents have been urged to meet their friends and family outside and avoid unnecessary travel to other areas.
There were headlines last week about a so-called 'Nepal variant' of the virus. Health officials later clarified it was in fact not a full-blown variant, but a "spike mutation of interest" on the existing Delta strain.
Downing Street said there had been 23 cases of the spike protein mutation identified in the UK before June 3.
The government will need to be satisfied that allowing people to mix in close proximity will not prove disastrous.
Scientists are worried about the Delta variant as it became the dominant strain (file image)
What has Boris Johnson said?
With typical bravado, the Prime Minister appears to be confident that the June 21 target date is feasible.
But he also displayed the same confidence about Christmas before making a last-minute U-turn.
Yesterday, the PM's official spokesman said there was "nothing in the data" to suggest the June 21 target needed to be pushed back.
He said: "There still remains that there is nothing in the data currently to suggest Step 4 can't go ahead at the earliest date.
"But we do need to look very closely at the data over this coming week, which will be crucial to decide and really to get a sense of the data, particularly on hospitalisations and whether or not the excellent vaccine rollout programme has sufficiently severed that link between the increase in cases, which we always expected to happen, particularly after Step 3, and that subsequently leading to hospitalisations and deaths."
Boris Johnson has a tough decision to make about easing lockdown
(Image: Getty Images)
Is a delay likely?
It has been suggested that "Freedom Day" could be pushed back by two weeks to give time to vaccinate more people.
This morning former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said any delay would be unlikely to be more than a fortnight.
Mr Hunt, who chairs the Health and Social Care Committee, added that he was "feeling quite optimistic" about the restrictions lifting, as "being double-jabbed" works against the Delta variant of coronavirus first identified in India.
"So, if Freedom Day ends up being put back a couple of weeks so we can get more people double-jabbed, I think it will only be a temporary setback," he told Times Radio.
He added: "I think we are on the way to getting back to normal."