The majority of the public back delaying the end of legal restrictions on social contact in the wake of rising cases of a more transmissible Covid variant, according to a new poll.
With Boris Johnson poised to announce a delay to his plan to remove the remaining restrictions on 21 June, an Opinium poll for the Observer found that 54% think the move should be postponed, up from 43% from a fortnight ago.
It suggests that the public is taking a cautious view following the emergence of the Delta variant, first detected in India and thought to be 60% more transmissible than the variant previously dominant in the UK. The proportion of people who thought Johnson should push ahead with the unlocking has fallen from 44% a fortnight ago to 37% this week.
A four-week delay now seems the most likely outcome when Johnson addresses the nation on Monday. Scientists have said that a delay will allow more time to collect crucial data on the serious illness caused by the Delta variant, as well as allowing more people to be vaccinated.
Hospital chiefs have also been warning that even if deaths and cases of serious illness are lower as a result of the vaccine programme, the sheer number of new cases could affect other hospital services that have been hit by huge waiting lists and delays as a result of the pandemic.
Emergency departments are already being “overwhelmed”, according to the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM). NHS performance figures published last week showed that nearly 1.4 million patients had attended A&Es in England during May – the second highest figure recorded since the 1980s, according to Dr Adrian Boyle, vice-president of the RCEM.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “Trust leaders are nervous that, with this level of pressure, even if they have relatively small numbers of Covid-19 patients coming in, that could disrupt the non-Covid care that’s being provided. NHS capacity is nowhere near where it would normally be.
“If you add all of that together – full-pelt care backlog recovery, a very busy emergency care pathway, growing numbers of Covid patients and 12% less capacity – what we’re saying is that overall NHS pressure is one of the factors that absolutely does need to be taken into account.”
Johnson is, however, coming under pressure from Tory MPs desperate to avoid any delay. Steve Baker, deputy chair of the Covid Recovery Group of MPs, said: “Sooner or later, we are going to have to decide if we are content to fumble along like this as a country, imposing severe restrictions that a majority seem to support but which are having devastating consequences on some businesses and some people’s mental health.”
In his clearest indication yet of a delay, Johnson said the spread of the new variant was a “serious, serious concern”. He insisted no final decisions had been made, but said it was “clear that the Indian variant is more transmissible and it’s also true that the cases are going up, and that the levels of hospitalisation are going up”.
He confirmed he was now less optimistic over holding to the current unlocking timetable than a fortnight ago. “What we want to do is make sure that the roadmap is irreversible, but you can’t have an irreversible roadmap unless you’re prepared to be cautious,” he said.