PO-FACED Boris Johnson slammed the breaks on lockdown lifting last night as he admitted the Indian variant was ripping through Britain.
The PM said a four week delay until July 19 should buy time for the vaccine rollout to catch up – but could not rule out a longer delay for Freedom Day.
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He attempted to sugarcoat the blow by lifting restrictions on wedding sizes and swelling the Wembley crowd to 45,000 for the Euros.
But critics slammed border dithering for allowing the mutant strain to take hold so quickly while others accused him of “panicking”.
Last night the jabs rollout was sped up to fight the bug, with 23 year olds invited to book today.
New data showed TWO Covid jabs slashed hospitalisation risk from the Indian variant by up to 96 per cent – as ministers race to double-vaccinate 10 million more Brits by late July.
Gloomy medics bounced the PM into delaying Freedom Day with doomsday warnings of first peak levels of hospitalisations and 500 Covid deaths a day.
Dire predictions of the new third wave forced the PM to push lockdown lifting to July 21, as he told Brits: “Now is the time to ease off the accelerator.”
But while he hoped July 21 would be a “terminus date” a glum-faced Johnson admitted that could yet slip with further “nasty” mutations of the virus even though the jabs are working.
Last night the PM took heavy fire from across the political divide for his “pathetic” border policy that let the highly infectious Indian variant rip through Britain – as his own side accused him of “panicking”.
But the PM insisted he faces a stark choice – push ahead with lockdown lifting and risk more deaths, or give the jabs programme “a few more weeks”.
Speaking at No10, he argued “by being cautious now, we have the chance in the next four weeks to save many thousands of lives by vaccinating millions more people.” And his pause was backed by voters, with polling showing 71 per cent in favour of delay.
Top doc Sir Patrick Vallance warned without the vaccine rollout, the country would be going back into tougher lockdown now rather than simply slowing down.
The Chief Scientist insisted the jabs were “spectacularly more effective than we ever hoped” but the country was now in a race against the Indian variant and must not put “the afterburners on.”
The medics cited figures showing around 8,000 bug cases a day, the highest since the end of February – up 64 per cent each week.
Hospitalisations are ticking up too, with the average number of people admitted to hospital increasing in England by 50 per cent per week, and 61 per week in the North-West.
Without a slowdown, modelling submitted to Sage shows how daily deaths could reach up to 500 a day by August , according to scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
PM said he was forced to bow to “the remorseless logic of exponential growth and even if the link between infection and hospitalisation has been weakened it has not been severed”.
Professor Chris Whitty added: “ A much smaller proportion of those infected are going to hospital but it has not ceased.”
Scientists claim delaying the end of lockdown by a month would reduce the peak in hospital admissions by half. And it could also slash the number of Covid deaths from 17,100 over the next year to just 8,500.
Mr Johnson said: “At a certain stage, we are going to have to learn to live with the virus and to manage it as best we can.
And he warned that “sadly”, some elderly and vulnerable may still get ill, even if they have had two jabs.
But he explained: “What we are trying to do now, by this delay, is to reduce the current surge and we think we can do that – we think a two-week delay would make a substantial difference and a four-week delay would make even more of a difference in reducing the overall number of deaths.”
By July 19 he said there would be a “very considerable wall of immunity around the whole of the population. At that stage, on the basis of the evidence that I can see now, I’m confident that we will be able to go forward with the full Step 4, the full opening.”
But he added: “That, of course, does not exclude the possibility – I’m afraid, and we have got to be honest about this – the possibility that there is some new variant that is far more dangerous, that kills people in a way that we currently cannot foresee or understand.”
But furious MPs and celebs blasted the delay fearing it will actually drag on for months, despite attempts to sugarcoat the blow with wedding joy and a half-full stadium the Euros final.
Singer Frank Turner said it would be the death knell of the music industry as clubs are still not open. He hit out that the “disheartening delay” could be the “final collapse” for the industry.
Last night Mr Johnson said there were no plans to extend Furlough beyond the summer, despite the delay.
But the Federation of Small Business Chair Mike Cherry said: “This is a bitter blow for small firms, with inadequate extra support – more restrictions must mean more help for businesses and jobs”
But bosses also reacted with fury, warning they will lose millions each week they have to rely on table service and cap their numbers indoors.
Emma McClarkin, from the British Beer & Pub Association warned the delay was “incredibly hard for our sector to stomach.”
She added: “Every week the current restrictions stay and uncertainty continues, the likelihood of pubs being lost forever increases.”
Claire Walker, from the British Chambers of Commerce said it was “a hammer blow to those firms who must remain closed, and to those who continue to see their ability to trade severely restricted.”
However polling showed the public overwhelming backed the delay, with 71 per cent polled by YouGov backing it. Some 46 per cent of said they “strongly support the delay” while less than one in four say they would oppose the move.
It was supported across all regions and age groups, bhut the biggest opposition comes from English 18-24 year olds, where 34 per cent oppose; but still 54 per cent supported a four week delay.
But fears the delay will last far longer than four weeks sparked uproar in Westminster.
Health minister Ed Argar said it is “of course possible” that the end of lockdown restrictions could be delayed beyond the newly-proposed July 19 date to get the Indian variant under control.
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith hit back: ‘I don’t see the evidence for us suddenly panicking like this. I don’t understand it.
“I don’t see the evidence for why now we have to delay, if we are not careful we will drift into the late summer and autumn and the scientists will say you cannot unlock now because we are heading into winter. My concern is where are we going with all of this?”
And Philip Davies told The Sun: “It’s completely unjustifiable and it seems the Government has been captured by Sage and PHE, who are basically all a bunch of socialists.
“If people had wanted to be run by socialists they’d have voted for Jeremy Corbyn at the last election.”
He added that any delay was “idiotic” and urged the PM to “find his Conservative instincts”.
And Labour said: “The delay is happening because a new variant first identified overseas was allowed to take hold in this country.”
Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas Symonds raged: “There is one reason and one reason only that this happened: lax border measures by Conservative ministers.
“They have allowed the Delta variant, first identified in India to take hold here. Let’s put the blame where it should lie. In this country – it’s the Johnson Variant.”
He added: “The Prime Minister’s negligence and incompetence, his refusal to take tough decisions have left Britain facing weeks more of restrictions – and yet more uncertainty.
“People across the country have every right to be angry about being let down so badly.”