Matt Hancock has signalled the Government would be prepared to implement a local lockdown in Bolton if one was needed to protect people.

Mr Hancock replied “we do not rule that out” when asked about the prospect of specific areas having different restrictions compared to the rest of the country to deal with the risk posed by Covid-19 variants.

He told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday: “The approach we’re taking in Bolton and Blackburn is to absolutely pile in testing and vaccinations to try to get on top of this.

“When we had an outbreak of the South African variant in south London last month we put in a huge amount, hundreds of thousands of tests in surge testing – people came forward in their droves across Southwark and Lambeth and Wandsworth, and we got that under control.”

Mr Hancock added: “We’re taking the same approach in Bolton and Blackburn, we’ve put in a huge amount of testing, we’ve reinforced that with Army personnel as well, and we’re expanding the vaccination programme – especially for those second jabs which are the best protection against ending up in hospital.

“So at the moment we’re taking the approach that worked in south London – which is this massive surge testing – but of course we don’t rule out further action.

“Given though Bolton has been in some form of kind of a lockdown for a year, 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.”

The Health Secretary urged people to come forward to get vaccinated, arguing the “vast majority” of people in Bolton in hospital with the new variant were eligible for the jab but have not taken it.

Cases have soared in the town in recent days, leaving it with the highest infection rate in the country at 254.9 cases per 100,000 of population - more than ten times the national average.

Testing has been stepped up as Bolton council aims to track the spread - thought to be driven by the B.1.617.2 strain of coronavirus - often referred to as the Indian variant - and ensure those who are infected are isolating.

Over the course of this weekend, council teams hope to distribute testing kits to between 10,000 and 12,000 homes around areas to the south-west of the town centre.

The highest rates have been recorded in Great Lever, Rumworth and Deane - which are also the areas with the lowest vaccination uptake.

A mass vaccination centre at Essa Academy attracted huge queues on Saturday as a total of 4,000 Pfizer jabs were made available to people who live, work or study in the BL3 or BL4 postcode areas.

At a press conference on Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed that lockdown restrictions would be eased in Bolton on Monday along with the rest of England.

From Monday, May 17, people will be allowed to meet in groups of up to 30 outdoors; pubs, cafes, restaurants and cinemas can reopen indoors; and more people will be able to attend weddings and funerals.