LONDON - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to delay a further easing of COVID-19 restrictions by several weeks on Monday following concerns about a rapid rise in Delta variant infections.
Under a so-called "road map" outlined by Johnson in February, the government said most social restrictions would be lifted "no earlier" than June 21, when pubs, restaurants, nightclubs and other hospitality venues could fully reopen.
But in recent weeks there has been fast growth in new cases caused by the Delta variant, first discovered in India. Health officials believe it is 60% more transmissible than the previous dominant strain and scientists have warned that it could trigger a third wave of infections.
Johnson has not denied suggestions in the media that the end of lockdown would be delayed by up to a month, saying in recent days there was "serious concern" about rising infections and hospitalisations.
"We're continuing to look at the data. No final decision has been taken and the right time to fill everybody in on what we're going to do with ... June the 21st is tomorrow," Johnson told reporters after a Group of Seven summit on Sunday.
Health minister Matt Hancock will update parliament at around 1930 GMT after Johnson addresses the public at a news conference.
Junior health minister Ed Argar said on Monday he expected Johnson would announce more aid for business and let parliament have a say if there was a delay in easing capacity constraints.
"I know that when he addresses his decision, sets out what he intends to do around the easing on the 21st, he will address those points as well," Argar told Sky News.
"He is very mindful of the need for businesses and others to get the support they need if they continue to be locked down or unable to open," Argar added.
Britain's furlough programme supports just over 2 million jobs and is due to continue until the end of September. But from July employers will have to pay 10% of furloughed staff's wages, rising to 30% in September.
The hospitality industry has also called for an extension of other sector-specific aid.
Deutsche Bank estimated last week that a four-week delay would temporarily reduce gross domestic product by around 0.25% - a fraction of the historic 9.8% slump recorded in 2020.
On Sunday, Britain recorded 7,490 new COVID-19 cases and eight deaths, with new infections rising almost 50% between June 7 and 13 compared with the previous week. Hospitalisations were up 15% between June 2 and 8 compared with the previous seven days.
The government has stressed any easing of restrictions would be irreversible, meaning it would always act with caution.
The hesitancy comes despite Britain having one of the fastest vaccine rollouts in the world. More than 41 million people have received their first shot and nearly 30 million have had both doses - about 57% of the adult population.
Foreign minister Dominic Raab said the critical issue was data on whether people infected were becoming ill enough to need hospital treatment.
(Additional reporting by Sarah Young and David Milliken; Editing by Giles Elgood and Andrew Heavens) ((email@example.com; +44 207 542 3213; Reuters Messaging: firstname.lastname@example.org))