Boris Johnson delays decision on social distancing update, blaming ‘new threat’ from Indian variant

‘We need time to assess the latest data on the variant first identified in India – I’m not going to give a set time’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Monday 17 May 2021 13:30
Holidaymakers prepare to jet off as Covid travel rules ease

Boris Johnson has dropped a promise to reveal this month whether social distancing will end, blaming the “new threat” from the Indian variant of Covid-19.

Only a week ago, the prime minister said he expected to scrap the “1 metre-plus rule” – and pledged to give couples planning weddings plenty of notice if the restriction will be lifted on 21 June.

But his spokesman pulled the deadline for setting out plans by the end of May, saying: “We can’t be definitive at this point, because of the variant that has been identified.”

More time was needed to “look at the data” because of “this new threat that we have from the variant,” he added.

No 10 also admitted there is no date for the ‘Team UK Covid summit’, Mr Johnson proposed with the first ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The spokesman said local leaders in variant-hit Bolton should not – as reported – be offering jabs to people as young as 17, saying: “We don’t want anyone to move beyond the rules set out.”

And, asked if people should be travelling to hotspots such as the town, replied that it was matter of “personal judgement”.

Last Monday, at a Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson promised the public would “hear a lot more by the end of this month” about what he called “the end of social distancing”.

But, his spokesman refused to say the commitment stood, adding: “We need time to assess the latest data on the variant first identified in India – I’m not going to give a set time for doing that.”

The rowback comes amid extraordinary confusion about whether the fourth and final step of the roadmap for lifting restrictions will go ahead, as planned.

On Friday, the prime minister warned of “disruption and delay” – but, on Monday, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng insisted he was “very confident” the country remains on track.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, prompted suggestions that the country is being held back by people who have refused vaccines, when he said “the majority” in hospital in Bolton fell into that category.

But No 10 said there were also fears that older and vulnerable people who have received a jab could be at risk from the new variant.

“Those “who have had the first dose, or those who have had two doses but for whom vaccine efficacy is reduced” were also a concern.

“That would then lead to increased hospitalisations and put unsustainable pressure on our NHS. That’s the situation we are attempting to avoid here,” the spokesman said.

And, asked about the return of local lockdowns, he called it “hypothetical”, adding: “We don’t want to rule anything out. And I think, until we have more data and more evidence, we won’t be making those judgments.”

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