Ministers have not ruled out a return to localised lockdowns in response to the upsurge in the Indian variant of Covid-19 in the UK, health secretary Matt Hancock has said.
Mr Hancock told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday that he “very much hopes” that the planned national removal of England-wide restrictions will go ahead on 21 June, but said it was too early to say whether it is safe to go ahead.
The health secretary said that early results from tests at Oxford University gave “a high degree of confidence” that vaccines work against the B1.617.2 strain of Covid-19.
But he revealed that five people in Indian variant hotspot Bolton have ended up in hospital despite having had one jab and one - who he described as “frail” - after having two doses of vaccine. None has died.
Mr Hancock said that if the variant is as much as 50 per cent more transmissible than previous strains - as some scientists fear - it could lead to “a very, very large number of cases”, even with much of the adult population vaccinated.
He urged anyone who has not taken up the offer of a vaccine to do so now, warning that the Indian variant can “spread like wildfire” among unvaccinated groups. And he confirmed that jabs will to be extended to the over-35s over the coming week.
Mr Hancock said the public need to be “cautious, careful and vigilant” as social and economic restrictions are rolled back.
But he said it was right to go ahead with the next round of relaxations on Monday, when restaurants and pubs will reopen indoors and gatherings in private homes will be allowed to resume.
The health secretary said it remained “too early to say” whether the final removal of lockdown curbs will go ahead on 21 June, telling Ridge that the decision will not be taken until a week in advance.
He said ministers are not ruling out a return to regional restrictions if the Indian variant creates serious localised surges in coronavirus. Vaccination and testing programmes have already been stepped up in Bolton and Blackburn in response to a surge in cases.
Mr Hancock made clear that ministers to not want to take the step of imposing local restrictions in areas like Bolton, which has remained in the highest level of controls almost the entire period since Covid-19 arrived in the UK.
But he said: “We don’t rule out further action… It’s not a step we want to take, but of course we might have to take it and we will if it’s necessary to protect people.”
Asked whether the 21 June relaxations may have to be delayed, Mr Hancock said: “I very much hope not.
“Our strategy remains on track. It is just that in the race between the vaccine and the variants, the variant has got more legs. That makes it more challenging but the overall strategy remains on track.”
A member of the government’s Sage scientific advisory group said ministers must be ready to reverse Monday’s relaxations if there is evidence of a rise in cases.
“I think we have to monitor this very carefully, I don’t think we should rule anything out,” Professor John Edmunds told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show. “So if things look like they’re getting worse rapidly then I do think that action needs to be taken.”
Prof Edmunds added: “I think we should be concerned but not panicking. We’re in a much, much better place now than we were when the Kent variant first hit us back in November, December.”
Mr Hancock said there is “new very early data” from Oxford University giving confidence that existing vaccines work against the variant.
“That means that we can stay on course with our strategy of using the vaccine to deal with the pandemic and opening up carefully and cautiously but we do need to be really very vigilant to the spread of the disease,” said the health secretary.
“We have a high degree of confidence that the vaccine will overcome.”
The university said the data is preliminary and was unable to share the research because it was not yet written up in a manuscript.
Government scientific adviser Professor Sir Mark Walport warned the pandemic is at a “perilous moment” and it will be “extremely important” to keep an eye on the numbers over the next few weeks.
“The problem is that the data takes some while to emerge, which is why there’s every grounds to be very cautious about the ability to open up in June,” said Prof Walport, a Sage member and former chief scientific adviser.
“It is a perilous moment. We have a variant that shows good evidence of being more transmissible and possibly significantly more transmissible.”
He said that “complete normality” will “take a bit of time to return”, as he urged people to exercise caution.
“My advice is that just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should,” Sir Mark told Ridge.
“As far as possible socialise outside, maintain social distancing, if you’re going to hug, hug cautiously.”
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) could reconsider its recommendation that under-40s should be offered an alternative to AstraZeneca jabs, in the light of the new more infectious variant, a member of the group has said.
Professor Adam Finn, of the University of Bristol, told Ridge: “That’s on the agenda, and if necessary that’s something that could be done.
“When we expressed a preference for non-AstraZeneca vaccines for this age group it was done in a very provisional way on the basis of everything going absolutely right.
“And if the evidence shows that the risk/benefit balance for people in their 30s is to be offered that vaccine then absolutely that recommendation will be changed.
“At the moment we don’t think that’s necessary, but it could well become a recommendation in the future.”
The recommendation to offer under-40s a different vaccine was made on the basis that the very low risk of this age-group developing serious illness or dying from Covid-19 made it preferable for them to avoid the risk - also very low - of dangerous blood clots linked to the AZ jab.
However, the decision will inevitably slow down the rollout of the vaccine as more of the younger age groups are called forward to receive their jabs.