As ministers continue to insist a delay to lockdown lifting in England has not been ruled out, a World Health Organization (WHO) official has suggested it should go ahead as planned.
Health secretary Matt Hancock previously said the government is “absolutely open” to delaying the 21 June unlocking in England if the Indian coronavirus variant – now renamed the Delta variant by the WHO – worsens the country’s recovery prospects.
But asked if the reopening should proceed, Dr David Nabarro, COVID special envoy for the WHO, said this morning: “Life has to go on and the last thing any of us want is to have people needing to go on restricting their lives, but this virus has not gone away.
“And in some ways it’s lurking and just waiting to strike again.”
Boris Johnson previously said 21 June would see an end to social distancing restrictions if the data allowed it.
Nabarro said the government should “by all means” release restrictions – but urged the public to be “really, really careful”.
He added: “It’s really up to people everywhere to organise their lives to minimise the amount of contact they have with others, and to wear their face masks and just keep that protection going…
Watch: Boris Johnson says nothing in data to delay lockdown lift
“It can’t be just about restrictions – the future for humanity is going to require that we adapt our lifestyles so that we make it hard for this virus to spread.”
Nabarro warned that the coronavirus “is constantly changing” and that while vaccines are a “marvellous asset”, the world is going to have to “behave as though the virus is an ever-present threat”.
Downing Street said this week that data emerging over the coming week will be “crucial” in deciding whether England’s legal coronavirus restrictions can end on 21 June.
The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “There still remains that there is nothing in the data currently to suggest Step 4 can’t go ahead at the earliest date.”
However, the health secretary struck a more cautious tone on Tuesday, telling MPs that there was a “challenging decision” to be made over the further lifting of COVID restrictions on 21 June.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is also said to be willing to accept a short delay to ending the lockdown amid a rise in cases.
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said any delay to England’s roadmap for easing lockdown would only be for a couple of weeks, owing to the success of the vaccination programme.
Hunt, who chairs the Commons Health and Social Care Committee, said he was “feeling quite optimistic that we are going to see the restrictions lifted” as “being double-jabbed” works against the Indian variant.
He told Times Radio: “If freedom day ends up being put back a couple of weeks so we can get more people double-jabbed, I think it will only be a temporary setback.”
However, Tory lockdown sceptic Sir Charles Walker warned the PM against delaying the earmarked end to legal coronavirus restrictions.
The vice chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs told the BBC's Newsnight: “There will be a huge wave of disappointment across the country if we don’t open up on 21 June.
“The delay could be two weeks, a month, but I think the real issue here is if we can’t open up the economy at the height of summer then I think we are facing the very real prospect of more forced lockdowns in the autumn – I just don’t see how we can avoid that.
“The goalposts – as we’ve always said, it’s a well-worn cliche – are moving.”