Health Secretary Matt Hancock has insisted it is “appropriate” to continue with the major easing of restrictions in England on Monday despite growing concerns over the Indian variant.
He told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday if the increase in transmissibility is lower “there will be almost no impact on our road map and the future number of cases”.
“And we just don’t know, so that’s why it’s appropriate to continue down the road map but people need to be cautious and careful,” he said.
“And anyway we’re moving the balance more towards people taking personal responsibility and trying to get away from some of the more intrusive ones that we’ve had to have in place.”
He said there is a “high degree of confidence” that the current vaccines work against the Indian variant of coronavirus but did not rule out that the easing of restrictions on Monday may have to be reversed if the Indian variant proves to be very highly transmissible.
“There’s new very early data out from Oxford University, and I would stress that this is from the labs, it’s not clinical data, and it’s very early.
“But it does give us a degree of confidence that the vaccines work against this Indian variant, but it is clearly more transmissible and has been spreading fast in the groups where there’s a cluster.
“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.
“We have a high degree of confidence that the vaccine will overcome.”
He added: “I very much hope not [reversing lockdown] and our goal remains, our strategy remains, to take a cautious and irreversible approach to ensure that we’re always looking at the data all the way through, and crucially to use the vaccine to get us out of this pandemic.”
A growing number of experts have issued warnings over the major easing of restrictions on Monday which ministers are pushing ahead with despite concerns over the Indian variant.
Boris Johnson was also facing criticism for delaying imposing heightened travel restrictions from India as experts fear the variant may be more than 50% more transmissible than the Kent strain.
The Prime Minister was sticking by plans to allow mixing indoors and physical contact in England, with health minister Edward Argar insisting they are acting “calmly” over the threat.
However, scientists urged for a delay in the third stage of the road map to easing the lockdown as medics described the step as a “real worry” while many await vaccination.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) concluded there is a “realistic possibility” the strain is 50% more transmissible than the one that emerged in Kent.
If the higher transmissibility is confirmed, the experts said moving to step three could “lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations” that is “similar to, or larger than, previous peaks”.
Sage’s Professor Susan Michie said the Government should suspend the unlocking, the Sunday Times reported.
“If we are following data not dates, it is surprising that the road map is going ahead without adjustment,” the University College London academic said.
“Opening indoor hospitality venues has the potential to increase Covid-19 transmission.”
And Professor Kit Yates, a member of the Independent Sage committee of experts, suggested a delay of a fortnight would buy the nation valuable time to progress with the vaccine programme.
“The more people we can vaccinate, the safer we become,” he told the Observer.
“Even a couple of weeks at this point could make a huge difference in the face of this seemingly more transmissible variant. A pause would also buy us time to understand more about the properties of the variant, which would put us in a better position to plan what comes next.”
The BMA’s public health medicine committee co-chairman Dr Richard Jarvis urged the public to take a “cautious approach” to social and physical contact.
“It is a real worry that when further measures lift on May 17, the majority of younger people, who are often highly socially mobile and could therefore be most at risk of a more infectious strain, are not yet vaccinated,” he said.
Monday’s easing in England will allow people to socialise indoors in homes, pubs and restaurants, and will permit physical contact between households for the first time in more than a year.
Ministers accept that plans to end all legal restrictions on June 21 are in jeopardy.
Official data on Saturday showed 68.6% of UK adults had received a single dose of a vaccine, while 36.7% had received both.
Over 35s in England will be invited to book their vaccinations this week, multiple newspapers reported, as second doses were accelerated for the over 50s and clinically vulnerable.
Surge testing is also under way in several places in England including areas of Bolton, Blackburn, Sefton and London.