England’s lockdown has been extended by four weeks, with Boris Johnson warning the delay was needed to avoid “thousands” of deaths.
July 19 is the government’s new target for the remaining social distancing rules to be lifted.
Drawing a bolder red line than on previous occasions, the prime minister told a Downing Street press conference this was the “terminus date”.
But many of his previous predictions have proved optimistic, including Johnson’s belief in March 2020 that the UK could “turn the tide” on Covid in 12 weeks.
And the government has left itself wiggle room to delay the unlocking once again if it feels necessary.
Johnson said while he was “confident” this would not happen, he added there was the possibility that an unforeseen and “far more dangerous” variant could emerge.
And Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, told Sky News on Tuesday morning an “unprecedented and remarkable alteration in the progress of the disease” could lead to July 19 being missed.
The decision as to whether to delay the July 19 date will ultimately come down to what the government believes is an acceptable number of hospitalisations and deaths from Covid.
It does not believe the disease can be entirely vanquished.
Government scientists told Johnson if lockdown was lifted on June 21 as planned, the NHS would be put under huge new pressure from the highly infections Delta variant of the virus.
The modelling suggested that the number of hospitalisations would match that seen in the first Covid wave in April 2020, when 3,500 people a day were admitted as patients across the UK.
The delay to July 19 is designed to buy time for people to receive vaccinations, and prevent hospitalisations.
NHS chief executive Simon Stevens announced earlier on Tuesday that all over-18s will be offered their first dose by the end of this week.
All over-40s will now be offered a shorter waiting time between their two doses, with the gap cut from eight weeks from twelve.
Everyone in the first 1-9 priority vaccination groups will be offered their second dose by July 19.
And some people in their 30s have also been able to bring forward their second dose by around three weeks.
In a boost to the government’s hope of unlocking on July 19, data from Public Health England (PHE) released on Monday suggested receiving two doses of Covid vaccines is “highly effective” against hospitalisation from the Delta variant.
The analysis showed the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 96% effective against hospitalisation after two doses and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is 92% effective.
On June 28, the government will review the data, if it still looks bad then the current Covid rules will be kept in place until July 19.
Confirmation of the July 19 unlocking will be made on July 12. This would also be the date that any further delay would likely be announced.
Johnson is already under pressure from his own party to make July 19 the final date.
Some Tory MPs want greater risk to be taken on Covid given the other economic and health impacts of lockdown.
Mark Harper, the chairman of the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) of backbenchers, said he was “worried that we’re not going to actually move forward” on July 19.
“Ultimately we’ve reduced the risk of this disease hugely by our fantastic vaccination programme, and, as the government says, we’ve got to learn to live with it, but the problem is every time we get to that point, ministers seem to not actually want to live with it and keep restrictions in place,” he told LBC.
Labour meanwhile, which while supporting the delay, has accused the government of “incompetence and indecision”.
The Opposition blamed the delay on border security which allowed the Delta variant to seed itself in the UK.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “The only reason this delay is being introduced is because the Conservatives failed to secure the country’s borders and a new variant from overseas was allowed to take hold, and failed to put in measures like proper sick pay support and surge vaccinations when needed.”