MATT Hancock will deliver an update on the latest Covid situation to MPs tonight as Boris Johnson prepares to delay the end of lockdown by four weeks.
The Health Secretary will appear in the House of Commons at around 8.30pm to deliver the grim news on the latest rise in cases.
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New infections have spiralled from 12,000 to 42,000 a week due to the highly transmissible Indian variant.
Top government scientist Sir Mark Walport warned this morning that "sadly we are in the grip of the early stages of a third wave of the virus".
He said: "More than 90% of the new infections in the UK are of this variant, and it is rising in most parts of the country, though not all.
"The good news is we would be in real trouble if not for the enormous success of the vaccination programme.
"We are starting to see hospital numbers rise, though fortunately with nothing like the intensity we saw previously."
And ministers have admitted the PM could even be forced to delay the end of lockdown by MORE than four weeks.
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.
There are fears 'Freedom Day' could even be delayed well into August after Dominic Raab refused to rule it out as an option.
The PM is set to announce Freedom Day is being pushed back by four weeks from June 21 to July 19 during a Downing St press conference tonight.
In the 6pm announcement, he will confirm plans to include a "two-week break clause", meaning the lifting of restrictions could go ahead on July 5 if hospitalisations don't significantly rise.
But some ministers fear that with cases spiralling, the health situation could go the other way and curbs will need to stay in place for even longer.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab warned yesterday he couldn't provide an "absolute guarantee" restrictions will definitely be lifted on July 19.
Asked about that possibility, Mr Argar said today: "Were there to be a delay of course that’s possible.
"But I and the PM and the Health Secretary want to see restrictions removed as soon as it’s safe to do so, and any delay as short as possible.
"We’ve got to recognise vaccination is the key. This disease will become endemic and we’ve got to learn to live with it.
"We will not get to a zero Covid. Vaccination is the way to get to the point where we can live with this disease."
He said the hope is to use the proposed month-long extension to get 10 million second jabs into arms, extending maximum protection to 75% of Brits.
Despite the delay to freedom, Mr Argar was adamant that there will be no rolling back of the roadmap or a return to the previous lockdown.
He said: "The key thing the PM has always said throughout is the dates set out in the roadmap were the earliest possible date it could happen.
"He’s been clear each step is irreversible, that is why he’s considering now whether or not to delay step four.
"The reason the gaps between stages are five weeks and the reason it’s staggered over a number of months – I know people would’ve wished it to be faster – is because he believes on the basis of the advice he’s received that means it can be irreversible."
The health minister admitted it is "possible" the delay to ending lockdown could've been avoided if India was added to the travel red list earlier.
But he insisted "there's no way of knowing that" and harsher travel curbs would've been unlikely to stop the Indian variant entering Britain anyway.
FREEDOM DAY – KEY DATES
June 14: Boris Johnson will address the nation and reveal his plan to push Freedom Day back to July 19
June 21: The original end of lockdown under the PM's roadmap, which has now been delayed
July 5: The PM will run the rule over the data for a two-week 'break-clause' review. If hospitalisations haven't increased significantly, restrictions could be relaxed early.
July 19: The proposed new 'Freedom Day' date where all remaining rules should be lifted.
The PM is set to offer a welcome reprieve for couples today by announcing restrictions on wedding ceremonies are being eased.
The PM, who tied the knot with Carrie 16 days ago, is desperate not to ruin couples’ happy day.
Ministers were last night thrashing out plans to let more than 30 guests attend so long as they stick to social distancing.
One said: “There is hope a deal can be done.”
Mr Argar said ministers are aware the last year has been "hugely distressing" for loved up couples.
He added: "I’ve got constituents in this situation, as will all other MPs, who have had to postpone their wedding in some cases not once but twice, and of course the financial costs that can go with that.
"I know that is something the PM will be very mindful of, he’ll be very sensitive to the situation that those individuals or couples find themselves in."
His remarks are the biggest hint yet that there will be a special exempting for weddings even as other parts of the unlocking are put on hold.
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