Boris Johnson has announced that the final stage of England’s reopening from lockdown will be delayed by four weeks after fears that the NHS could be overwhelmed by the new Covid case wave.
The Prime Minister said the restrictions that had been due to lift on June 21 will not end until July 19 amid growing alarm at the spread of the Indian or delta variant.
It means social distancing rules, wearing face masks, sitting in groups of no more than six inside and 30 outside and keeping nightclubs shut remain in force for now.
But there are some exemptions, with the 30-person attendee limit on weddings to lift and no new explicit maximum. Instead, individual venues will have their own Covid-secure capacity limits.
Care home residents who leave a site will not have to self-isolate for 14 days on their return, a change some campaigners have been seeking.
A check two weeks into the four-week delay will be conducted to see whether the Covid situation has improved, but Downing Street officials said it was "unlikely" the plan would change then.
Number 10 sources said Mr Johnson was "confident" that only a four-week delay will be needed, although doubts remain given the sharp rises in Covid cases and hospitalisations.
Cases would reach the January peak next month
The decision was taken after scientific modelling for the Government suggested a third wave of cases could see hospitalisations hit the peak seen in the first wave.
There is particular alarm about the delta variant, which has become the dominant strain of new virus infections in the UK.
The latest scientific analysis suggests the variant is between 40 per cent and 80 per cent more transmissible than other Covid strains.
Downing Street is arguing that the four-week delay allows the Government to vaccinate millions more people, with the rollout strategy tweaked in an attempt to maximise protection.
The target for offering the first Covid vaccine dose has been brought forward from the end of July to July 19, meaning all adults should be offered at least one jab by the new final reopening date.
People in their forties will also now only have to wait eight weeks rather than 12 between the first and second jab, which provides the maximum immunity. That matches the rules for people aged 50 and over.
The NHS will contact people in their 40s who are now eligible for their second jab as a result of the change.
How many more could we vaccinated with the delay to June 21?
The legislation that enshrines in law the reopening roadmap, first published in February, will be extended to July 19 to cover the delay. A vote in Parliament is expected this week.
Tory MPs sceptical of lockdowns have already threatened to vote against the extension, but it is expected to easily pass the House of Commons given Labour’s past support for the measures.
No changes to the travel rules were announced. A review of the Covid borders rules is due later this month, with checks on whether new countries can be added to the green list – for which no quarantine on return to the UK is required – happening every three weeks.
The Treasury is not announcing any new financial support despite the four-week delay, to the frustration of business industry leaders who have demanded extra help.
From next month the Government will cover only 70 per cent of wages of furloughed workers instead of 80 per cent, with businesses having to pick up the extra 10 per cent.
Hospitality and leisure companies will also have to start paying a third of their business rates bills from the start of July, ending more than a year of their rates being waived.
A Treasury source argued that more than £1 billion of grants are still available for companies – especially nightclubs, which cannot open – affected by the pandemic from local authorities. "We need to keep a balance in order to ensure we can recover strongly," the source said.