A minister has told Sky News that step three of England’s lockdown easing will still go ahead on Monday, despite soaring cases of the Indian variant of coronavirus in the UK.
Latest figures show there are 1,313 cases of the variant in the UK, up from the 520 recorded the previous week.
But vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said the COVID-19 roadmap for Monday “remains in place because the vaccines are delivering”.
“At the moment we have no evidence that it escapes the vaccines or is more severe in its impact on people,” he said.
From 17 May, pubs and restaurants will be able to reopen indoors and people will be allowed to mix indoors as two households or under the rule of six.
People will also have the choice whether to socially distance with close family and friends they meet up with.
On 21 June, step four, the government wants to end “all limits on social contact”.
Asked about this step, Mr Zahawi was more equivocal, saying that ministers would monitor the situation with the virus and be “guided by the data”.
Meanwhile, Wales First Minister Mark Drakeford has told Sky News that the Indian variant has delayed the lifting of some restrictions there.
Wales will move to alert level two on Monday, with the reopening of indoor hospitality and entertainment venues.
However, Mr Drakeford said the variant has “already impacted plans” causing them to pause some easements they were going to introduce on Monday.
These included reopening smaller events and relaxing the rules for mixing beyond extended households.
“There were 17 cases of the Indian variant in Wales yesterday and over 700 in England,” he said.
“We have decided just to pause, wait to see how significant the spread of the Indian variant is… not wanting to put at risk the very good position we are in in Wales today.”
Boris Johnson said on Thursday that the UK is “anxious” about the variant and the government is “ruling nothing out” when it comes to tackling its spread.
Despite this, the prime minister said he “can see nothing that dissuades me from thinking we’ll be able to go ahead on Monday and indeed on 21 June everywhere” in terms of easing restrictions in England.
The government is now considering bringing forward vaccine second doses in areas with high numbers of cases of the Indian variant.
The Department of Health said “most cases are in the North West of England, with some in London”.
Surge testing, increased genomic sequencing and enhanced contact tracing have all been introduced in the 15 affected areas.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “We are monitoring the situation very carefully and will not hesitate to take further action if necessary.”
The Department of Health said there is “no firm evidence yet to show this variant has any greater impact on severity of disease or evades the vaccine”.
But it added: “As set out in the roadmap, we cannot rule out re-imposing economic and social restrictions at a local or regional level if evidence suggests they are necessary to contain or suppress a variant which escapes the vaccine.”
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham told Sky News that his “heart sank” when he heard the PM mention the possibility of a return to local restrictions, declaring: “They really didn’t work.”
“We are in a different situation this year because, even though we are seeing spread of the Indian variant in Bolton, we are not seeing the same numbers of people going into hospital because obviously older people are more protected now.
“So we don’t need to have the same response that we had last year. We do believe if we move quickly on vaccination we can take away any risk of a local lockdown.”
Also speaking to Sky News, Mr Zahawi said young people in these areas could be offered a COVID jab sooner.
“The clinicians will look at all of this to see how we can flex the vaccination programme to make it as effective as possible to deal with this surge in this variant, the B1617.2,” he said.
“They will make those decisions and we will be ready to implement, whether it’s vaccinating younger cohorts.
“We have been doing some work on multi-generational households where we vaccinate the whole household, over-18s, and of course the older groups who are already eligible.
“Or, bringing forward the second dose – we look at all of that and be guided by the clinicians as to what we do on that.”
Sky News understands that following an emergency meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies on Thursday, members agreed that surge vaccinating would help to curb cases of the Indian variant.
It comes after plans to vaccinate over 18s in areas with high cases of the variant were pulled hours after they were announced.
Blackburn with Darwen Council rowed back on their announcement to offer vaccines to all over 18s after government intervention.
Mr Burnham backed vaccinating younger people, saying: “We have a lot of younger people in places like Bolton who are in quite insecure work, so if they become ill they fear they won’t be paid if they have to take time off work.”
He added: “So vaccination, self-isolation support, those are the things the government should be doing, not doing what can seem the easier thing of just putting local communities under lockdown.”