Britain was on Monday widely expected to delay the full lifting of coronavirus restrictions due to a surge of infections caused by the Delta variant.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to announce the government’s next step of its roadmap out of stay-at-home measures, after easing began in March.
He is expected to announce a delay at a news conference on Monday evening, as media reported that senior ministers had agreed to postponing the lifting.
Health policy is a devolved matter for the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But Scotland, originally due to move to the lowest level of restrictions on June 28, is also expected to announce a delay.
The BBC reported that most current rules in England would remain in place until July 19.
Last week Johnson gave his strongest hint yet that the final stage — lifting all social distancing requirements on June 21 — could be put on hold.
The more transmissible Delta variant, first identified in India, is now responsible for over 90 percent of UK cases, and positive tests have jumped 50 percent in the last week.
The postponement comes as reported cases are at their highest since February.
Public Health England has said the Delta variant is 60 percent more transmissible than the Alpha variant first identified in Kent, southeast England.
That forced the country to go into another three-month lockdown in January.
Nevertheless hospital admissions and deaths remain low and more than 40 percent of adults in the UK have had two vaccine jabs.
In comments to Sky News on Saturday, Johnson acknowledged that the spread of the virus was a matter of “serious, serious concern”.
– Buying time –
The Times reported Monday that Johnson and senior ministers had agreed a four-week delay after a briefing by scientific and health advisers.
Newspapers hinted at dissent within Johnson’s cabinet over the delay. The Times cited an unnamed minister as saying it was “a very odd decision”.
But scientists said the delay would buy time to assess the risk of the new variant and fully vaccinate more people, as the figures suggest the country could be at the beginning of a large new wave of infections.
Last week the government said 42,323 cases of the Delta variant had been identified, 29,892 of them after June 2.
“A delay would provide time to increase the proportion of UK adults who have received both doses of vaccine,” said Mark Woolhouse, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh.
“This is important because the second dose significantly increases levels of protection against the Delta variant,” he said. Otherwise large numbers of infected young people could spread the virus to the more vulnerable, he added.
The current restrictions apply to England only.
England currently does not allow outside gatherings of more than 30 people or for more than two households to meet indoors.
– ‘Death knell’ –
The government had hoped to allow the reopening of nightclubs and “stand-up” drinking in pubs, as well as the lifting a limit of 30 guests at weddings.
Businesses hard hit by the restrictions say their livelihoods depend on them being lifted.
UKHospitality, a trade association representing bars and nightclubs and hotels, estimated that one month’s delay in lifting restrictions would cost the sector around £3 billion ($4.23 billion) in sales.
“A full and final ending of restrictions is the only way to ensure that businesses in this sector can trade profitably,” said its chief executive Kate Nicholls.
The Daily Telegraph reported the limit on permitted wedding guests would be “relaxed”, although it was not clear what number would be allowed.
Sarah Haywood of the UK Weddings Taskforce, a campaign group for wedding-related businesses, told TalkRadio that extending current rules would be a “death knell certainly for some businesses”.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was set to give a statement to parliament on Tuesday.