The lifting of all lockdown restrictions in England is likely to be delayed for up to a month from the planned date of 21 June, government sources have told the Guardian.
It comes as coronavirus cases in England are rising at their fastest rate since the winter wave.
Ahead of an announcement scheduled to be made by the prime minister on Monday, a “quad” meeting for Boris Johnson and three senior ministers has been pencilled in over the weekend.
The four – Johnson; the chancellor, Rishi Sunak; the Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove; and the health secretary, Matt Hancock – will decide whether to suspend the planned unlocking of all legal limits on social contact. There is also a further meeting of the Covid operations committee scheduled for Sunday night before a full cabinet meeting on Monday. These are said to be rubber-stamping exercises. All the meetings will take place around the G7 and Nato summits.
While no final decision has been taken, government figures said a delay of two to four weeks was highly likely due to the spike in cases that some scientists have warned is the beginning of a new peak. The delay would be used to buy time to measure the impact of infections on hospitalisations and give more people their second vaccine dose. Tory MPs who at the start of the week were bullish about the prospect of the 21 June unlocking going ahead as planned have become increasingly pessimistic.
Daily infections are now rising at 3% to 6% across England, official estimates released on Friday suggest, pointing to a growth rate not seen since cases started to soar at the end of last year.
The national surge is being fuelled by cases in the north-west, where the daily growth rate may be as high as 8%, and London and the east of England where the epidemic is growing at between 2% and 6%, the figures show.
The British Medical Association (BMA) urged the government to delay the planned easing of restrictions in light of the rise in cases. “The best protection [from vaccines] is only achieved at about two weeks after the second dose, particularly with the Delta variant, and we will not have enough of the population properly protected by 21 June,” said the chair of the BMA council, Dr Chaand Nagpaul.
The figures come as a further 8,125 Covid cases in the UK were reported on Friday, levels not seen since the end of February.
Data released by Public Health England on Friday revealed that up to 96% of Covid cases in England were now down to the Delta variant first discovered in India, with the total number of confirmed cases in the UK passing 42,000.
Also known as B.1.617.2, the Delta variant appears to be 64% more transmissible in households than the Alpha variant first spotted in Kent, and twice as likely to lead to hospitalisations, PHE found. One of the main concerns with the variant, which is doubling every 4.5 to 11.5 days depending on the region, is that it is somewhat resistant to vaccines, particularly after just one dose.
The steep jump in UK cases of Delta variant, by 29,892 to a total of 42,323 in the latest PHE report, is partly due to a new technique to determine the variant present in a positive Covid sample. Previously, positive samples were sent to laboratories for whole-genome sequencing – a process that took five to 10 days to return results.