Rishi Sunak ‘willing to accept short delay’ to end of restrictions on 21 June

Rishi Sunak ‘willing to accept short delay’ to end of restrictions on 21 June

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is reportedly prepared to accept a short delay to the planned easing of all Covid restrictions on 21 June in England amid a recent rise in infections.

It comes as Boris Johnson, who suggested last week there was nothing in the data “at the moment” to divert from the plan, prepares to unveil the government’s decision on whether to press ahead with the final unlocking of the economy on Monday.

The Guardian claimed the chancellor is willing to accept a postponing of the plans by up to four weeks, is not fixated on 21 June date and is more concerned that the eventual easing of restrictions becomes permanent.

“The Treasury’s main thing is that freedoms are irreversible and business have clarity,” a Whitehall source told the newspaper.

Asked about the report, a Treasury source told The Independent that if the data shows a delay is necessary then economic support is already in place because the department “went long” at the Budget to cover the possibility of a delay to the plans.

Under the proposed roadmap — published in February — the government said it hoped to be in a position to “remove all legal limits on social contact” and open the remaining premises, including nightclubs for the first time since the onset of the pandemic.

But concerns have been raised in recent weeks about the increasing case rates of the virus and the spread of the Delta variant first detected in India. It was reported professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific officer, gave ministers a “downbeat” assessment of the current state of the pandemic earlier this week.

Scientists on the Independent Sage group — set up to shadow the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) — have also called for a “pause” in the last stage of the easing of restrictions on 21 June due to concerns over the Delta variant.

On Tuesday, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, suggested it would be a “challenging decision”, as he announced that a “strengthened package of support” will be provided for Greater Manchester and Lancashire, similar to that seen in Bolton, where case number remains high.

According to the Huff Post, Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, struck a more optimistic tone during a meeting on Monday, telling colleagues that if he were a “betting man” he would “bet on a relaxation of rules” on 21 June.

Pressed on the possibility of a delay, another cabinet minister, Robert Jenrick, told Sky News he would not comment on discussions within cabinet, but added: “The prime minister is reviewing the data and more data is coming in which is very important.

“It’s a finely balanced decision and we need to see that data of cases which are clearly rising, but the link to hospitalisations. The PM is reviewing that ahead of the decision which is going to be 14 June.”

Quizzed on his own view, Mr Jenrick added: “Well, I’m not going to give my view, obviously those views are made privately within the cabinet, but what I do think is important is that we don’t throw away the gains that we’ve made. We’re going to take a cautious approach, but if we can proceed with that reopening on 21 [June] then of course all of us would love to see that”.

Reacting to reports of a potential delay to the 21 June reopening date, the vice chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, Charles Walker, however, told BBC Newsnight: “There will be a huge wave of disappointment across the country if we don’t open up 21 June.”

The prominent lockdown-sceptic said: “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.”

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