Boris Johnson is about to make some tough choices (Image: POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
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June 21 was meant to be the day England would taste freedom – from masks, from house party bans, from ordering your pint from an app.
But the last few weeks have made it abundantly clear we’re not free of the thing that really matters – Covid-19.
More than 7,000 new cases per day are being recorded, a rise of 49% in a week, and hospitalisations are rising too.
So Boris Johnson is at 6pm expected to announce a delay of up to four weeks to step four of his lockdown roadmap.
That means the rule of six will still apply to indoor gatherings while outdoor parties will be limited to 30 people.
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There could however be a breakthrough for weddings – and we should get a signal for the future with reviews on social distancing and Covid passports due to report back.
While we don’t know for sure what will happen yet, here are 10 things to look out for tonight:
Rule of six indoors
The biggest restriction still on people’s lives in England is arguably the ‘rule of six’ on indoor gatherings.
People cannot legally gather in groups of more than six people, or a larger number of people from a maximum of two households.
This has prevented house parties, big Sunday meals and nightclubs (more below). There are exemptions for work, education and some ‘Covid-secure’ events.
Axing this rule of six was a key part of moving to step four – so it seems almost unthinkable that it will go ahead from June 21.
If step four is delayed to July 19, it’s extremely likely the rule of six will remain for that period too.
Ravers at a Liverpool test event where they got tested before going inside
(Image: Iain Watts/Mercury Press)
Nightclubs are among the only venues still shut under the step three of the government’s roadmap for England.
It’s been a brutal 15 months for these venues in which they have not been able to open at all, even last summer.
Also shut are “dance halls, discotheques, sexual entertainment venues and hostess bars”.
The aim was to allow these to reopen at step four of the roadmap, potentially with Covid passports (more below). But this now looks set to be delayed too.
Currently most large events can only operate at 50% capacity or less – making sports fixtures and gigs difficult to turn a profit (or be fun).
But since April there have been pilot events, trialling the idea of packing in large crowds without social distancing.
Attendees have taken rapid Covid tests before they’re allowed through the gates, in a model that could potentially be used as a return to normality.
Obviously any delay means these events are likely to start properly later than June 21. But they’re not as umbilically tied to step four as other things.
Instead the return of big events is tied to an ‘events research programme’. It’s possible we could get some results from this today, despite the delay, at least pointing us in the right direction.
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Boris Johnson to give Downing Street press conference at 6pm on June 21 lockdown
Weddings and receptions are currently limited to 30 attendees with masks for ceremony guests, and singing and dancing banned.
The UK Weddings Taskforce campaign group has claimed venues and businesses will lose £325m per week of delay – with 50,000 marriages planned in the four weeks from June 21.
Or will they? After immense pressure from the weddings industry, there are reports the 30-person cap on weddings will be lifted in a rare exemption to the June 21 halt.
Details were still incomplete at the time of writing. But Health Minister Edward Argar dropped a hint, saying: “I know weddings and people in that particular situation will be very much in [Boris Johnson’s] mind at the moment, it's one of the things he has been looking at."
Weddings have been in an anaemic state since last spring
(Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Step four – which obviously now won’t happen on June 21 – had aimed to abolish all legal limits on social contact.
Crucially, this would have included the spaced-out-tables and table-service-only rule in pubs, which breweries say has cost them millions and make it difficult to stay afloat.
But there’s also the question of what government guidance will say. And that could remain, with one SAGE member suggesting Covid measures could stay “forever”.
A review of social distancing rules – separate to the roadmap – has been taking place and was due to be published today.
If that goes ahead, we could find out a bit more about what our world will look like this summer, even if it doesn’t start happening this week.
Social distancing rules have made people feel safer but been tough on businesses
(Image: AFP via Getty Images)
For months now, Cabinet Office minister Michel Gove has been reviewing whether Brits should carry domestic “Covid passports” to access ticketed events like theatres, gigs and sports venues.
Officials looked at re-engineering the NHS app to allow people to show their vaccine, rapid test or antibody status. These are different to showing your status for international travel, which some countries will need regardless.
The review is set to report back today after long delays. But passports look poised to be shelved after an influential group of MPs rubbished them.
The idea has been hit with heavy criticism from civil liberties campaigners, businesses and unions, who said it was unworkable and likely to lead to unfair discrimination.
Mr Gove has called the argument "finely balanced" and said the government is not going to back passports "come what may, hell or high water”. He added: "We've been looking at it pragmatically, to see if it can add value, and if not, then we would not press ahead with it."
The NHS app was due to be reconfigured
Furlough and business support
It’s understood Rishi Sunak has thrown out demands from business bodies to extend the furlough scheme.
Sources close to the Chancellor say he has "gone long" with support already – so it didn't need to be extended if lockdown easing was delayed.
But support will fall in the coming months.
Currently the government is paying 80% of wages up to £2,500 a month as part of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.
From July government contributions will fall to 70% up to £2,187.50, with employers having to pay 10%. They then fall again to 60% up to £1,875 in August and September, with employers paying 20%, before ending altogether.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is not planning to extend the furlough scheme, it's understood
(Image: AFP via Getty Images)
Despite this, Health Minister Edward Argar said the Prime Minister "will address those points" of needing financial support.
"He is very mindful of the need for businesses and others to get the support they need if they continue to be locked down”, the minister said.
That indicates the government might be looking at extending other support outside the furlough scheme.
For example, the ban on commercial evictions ends on June 30 and the business interruption loan scheme ended on March 31.
The ideal from the government was to abolish laws on masks in step four.
But not only has that been delayed, it seems likely that even if legal restrictions are abolished, people may still be encouraged to mask up.
This could particularly apply in places like public transport, where some countries already see wearing a mask as the norm.
Masks could also have to make a return if there is a surge later this year.
Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick said earlier this year: "It may be as winter comes, and if rates went up again, things like face coverings on transport might be necessary."
Masks on public transport could last beyond the summer, some predict
(Image: NurPhoto/PA Images)
MPs getting a vote
The delay has infuriated Tory MPs – one of whom vowed to defy the rules even when in Parliament.
Health Minister Edward Argar today confirmed MPs will get a vote on the restrictions – which could be the forum for a big Conservative rebellion.
But there’s little doubt an extension to lockdown will make it through the Commons, even if 50 Tories rebel against Boris Johnson.
That’s because Keir Starmer ’s Labour party appears likely to back an extension.
How long will it last?
Reports suggest the delay will be four weeks, to July 19.
But Boris Johnson has pointedly refused to rule out delaying again or for longer – which would risk restrictions pushing into August.
It’s also not known yet if there will be a “review period” two weeks into the delay, where step four could be brought forward.
Tory MP Damian Green told the BBC's Westminster Hour there should be a break clause after two or three weeks.
He said: "I get the point that because of the Delta variant the cases have gone up, hospitalisation has gone up a bit but not a lot, and is below the level of some of the Sage predictions of a few months ago.
"So I think if there is a delay I hope it’s only for a few weeks.
"And I think if it is as long as a month then there should be a break clause after two or maybe three weeks, to say that if we can tell by then that the rise in cases is not leading to a sort of rise in the serious illness that sends people into hospital, then we can unlock earlier.”