The Government had been on track to scrap social distancing measures, reopen nightclubs and allow more foreign holidays by June 21, the date pencilled in as the finish line for the easing of restrictions in England.
But the Indian variant of coronavirus is threatening to derail this final step in the “road map” out of lockdown, so what might happen instead?
– Why does the Indian variant threaten the easing of restrictions in England?
The new strain, known as B1617.2, has been designated a “variant of concern” because it is thought to be as much as “50% more transmissible” than the Kent strain, according to the Scientific Advisory Group for emergencies (Sage).
This variant has already entered the UK, and data from Public Health England (PHE) published on Thursday showed a steep rise in cases associated with it, from 520 last week to 1,313.
Vicky Head, director of public health in Bedford, where 80 cases of the Indian variant have so far been confirmed, said she is “really worried” about the spread, telling the BBC: “If someone goes to school and tests positive, we are then seeing their whole family test positive.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned the strain could pose a “serious disruption to our progress” coming out of lockdown.
– What has been done to combat the new strain so far – and why is this not enough?
India was placed on the travel red list on April 23, but the new variant has already entered the UK.
Vaccinations, which early evidence suggests is effective against the Indian variant, have been accelerated, especially in areas like Blackburn and Bolton where high levels of the variant have been detected.
Mr Johnson told a Downing Street press conference last week that second doses, which give people maximum protection against Covid-19, will also be brought forward from the planned 12-week interval to eight weeks.
But it remains to be seen whether bringing forward second jabs will help curb rising infections, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock has voiced his frustration over vaccine hesitancy among people admitted to hospital with the variant in Bolton.
But Dr Zubaida Haque, the former deputy director of the Runnymede Trust and a member of Sage, told Good Morning Britain that Mr Hancock’s conclusion seemed “to be based on hospitalisations in Bolton of 18 people, of which a third have been vaccinated”.
She added that since it “takes a couple of months” to roll out the vaccine and there are still “millions and millions of people who haven’t had either the second dose or any dose at all”, the Government needs to do more than ramp up the rollout to combat the virus’ spread.
– Does this mean social distancing measures could be here to stay?
The Government had been planning to scrap social distancing measures completely by June 21 but Downing Street said on Monday that this could now be delayed.
This means that people may still need to wear face coverings on transport and in other public spaces, and limits on gatherings may not be lifted as planned.
– Could local lockdowns be re-introduced?
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the Commons on Monday that, although controversial local restrictions are “not where want to go”, the Government will not “rule it out” as a potential tool to curb the spread of the virus.
Cabinet minister George Eustice reiterated this on Times Radio the next day, saying the Government could bring back the tiers if “we do have a deterioration in some areas”.
– Who would be likely to resist a return to local restrictions?
The Government is under pressure from some of its own MPs and independent scientists not to re-introduce tiered restrictions.
Conservative William Wragg, MP for Hazel Grove, urged Mr Hancock not to “even flirt momentarily with the idea of imposing local restrictions which are neither helpful and, indeed, bring about a great deal of resentment” in the Commons on Monday.
Professor Gabriel Scally, a member of Independent Sage and a leading public health expert, said on Sky News that although local restrictions would get the virus “under control” lockdowns are “bad for people’s health, bad for the economy, and a bad way to tackle an infectious disease”.
The Government also faced a fierce backlash from regional leaders over tiered restrictions last year, and Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said his “heart sank” when he heard they might be re-imposed.
He told Sky News: “They really didn’t work… we were under different forms of local lockdown pretty much for the whole of the second half of last year and it took a huge toll on people, obviously on our businesses and our economy.”
– How would this affect travel and foreign holidays?
Scientists have warned that further imports of the Indian variant from Europe, where vaccination levels are not as high, could exacerbate the situation.
Sage’s Prof Scally told Sky News: “(The Indian variant) hasn’t really taken off in Europe yet, and if it takes off in Europe I think we’re in for a very rocky time.
“At the same time, we’re reducing travel restrictions, and many more people are disappearing off on holidays and will come back and not necessarily have any really managed quarantine, and we know self-isolation doesn’t work, and I’m really worried about a big wave in Europe.”
Meanwhile, the Government is under intense pressure from airline bosses and some MPs to add more countries to the very limited ‘green list’ of destinations where people are free to go on holiday – but Mr Hancock has said only that the traffic light system is being “kept under review”.