Britain's Covid cases rose slightly for the seventh day in a row today, amid fears the rapid spread of the Indian variant could jeopardise lockdown-easing plans.
Department of Health bosses recorded 2,284 positive tests — up 6.5 per cent in the space of a week. But deaths are continuing to fall. Officials posted only 11 laboratory-confirmed deaths, compared to 27 last Wednesday.
It comes as data suggested India’s Covid variant — linked to an explosion of cases on the sub-continent — is now dominant in four local authorities across England, including in Bolton and Blackburn, where outbreaks have nearly doubled in size in a week.
Experts fear the mutant B.1.617.2 strain, thought to be 60 per cent more infectious than the highly-transmissible Kent variant, is behind the up-tick in cases nationally.
But early lab trials suggest it is still susceptible to vaccines, and more than two in three adults — or 35.47million — have already had at least one jab.
Figures today showed another 135,000 first doses were dished out yesterday, as well as 350,000 top-up jabs. It means 18.4million Britons have now been fully vaccinated against the disease. Some 67.8 per cent of adults have had a first jab, while 35 per cent have had their second.
England’s coronavirus vaccination drive will open up to under-40s for the first time tomorrow, with around one million 38 and 39 year olds invited to book appointments to get either the Pfizer or Moderna jab.
MINISTER HINTS TIERED RESTRICTIONS ARE STILL ON THE CARDS AMID RISE OF COVID HOTSPOTS
A Government minister today refused to rule out tiered lockdowns returning when England's national measures are planned to end next month.
Environment Secretary George Eustice revealed No10 was 'closely monitoring' several localised coronavirus outbreaks that have cropped up in recent weeks.
Analysis shows that while national infections have continued to plunge, there are 12 boroughs where cases have doubled in a week.
Mr Eustice said scientists were unsure what was driving the flare-ups — predominantly in the North of England — but suggested people may have become 'too lax' with Covid rules, or the highly-infectious Indian variant could be driving cases.
Scotland has already refused to ease restrictions in Moray when the rest of the nation takes the next step to freedom on Monday because of the area's growing outbreak.
Asked if local restrictions could be reimposed in England to squash local outbreaks during a round of interviews today, he said: 'We can't rule anything out.'
He told Sky News: 'But our plan that's been set out by the Prime Minister, the reason we're being incredibly cautious about exiting lockdown, is we want this to be the last. We want to try and avoid having to get into a tiered system and regionalisation. We tried that last autumn, we know that in the end we had to go for a full lockdown.'
Most social distancing restrictions in England are to be lifted on June 21 as part of the final step in No10's roadmap out of lockdown. Boris Johnson this week raised hopes that an end to Covid measures may be sight, suggesting social distancing could be scrapped completely by next month.
The tiered system last summer was heavily criticised for being too convoluted, with people in neighbouring streets often living by a completely different set of rules.
The Prime Minister himself admitted they were 'confusing' as he struggled to explain the difference between restrictions imposed in the North East in September.
In other coronavirus developments today:
Boris Johnson said in a statement to Parliament today that the Indian variant was 'of increasing concern', warning that a variant that could slip past vaccines would have 'potential to cause even greater suffering than we endured in January'.
It comes after a Government minister refused to rule out tiered lockdowns in England when national restrictions come to an end next month. Environment Secretary George Eustice added they were 'closely monitoring' several outbreaks that had cropped up in recent weeks.
Public Health England has launched surge testing in Bolton to root out cases of the B.1.617.2 variant, but no other area has yet seen enhanced surveillance. For the South Africa variant, by comparison, door-to-door swabbing has been ordered in dozens of boroughs.
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has called for over-16s in Bolton and the wider region to be offered Covid vaccines earlier to quell the rise in cases. Customers at a bar in Tyneside, the North East, have also been urged to get tested after a case of the variant was linked to the premises.
There are three Indian variants but only B.1.617.2 has sparked major concerns because cases have more than doubled in the past week, with 520 spotted since the first positive sample was detected in late February. It now makes up six per cent of cases nationally, a leap from fewer than one per cent last month.
No10's top scientists fear it may be more transmissible than the currently dominant Kent variant (B.1.1.7), which triggered the brutal second wave.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation last week said under-40s should be given an alternative to the AstraZeneca jab due to its link to rare blood clots ahead of Britain extending the roll-out to under-40s from next week.
The NHS Digital bulletin said 38- and 39-year-olds already booked in for a first dose of the British vaccine will have their appointment cancelled.
People who qualify for a jab will invited via a text from 'NHSvaccine', which includes a web link to the health service's online booking service.
Those who can't access the internet can call 119 instead to get an appointment at one of 1,600 sites administering the vaccines across England.
India's Covid variant is now dominant in five local authorities in England, official data reveals. There are mounting concerns that it is more infectious than the currently dominant Kent strain
Cases in Bolton have begun to rise in recent days as the variant takes hold in the area
Blackburn with Darwen is also seeing virus cases beginning to tick up, reversing a four-month long trend of plummeting infections
Bedford, where the variant may make up more than 70 per cent of cases, is also seeing a rise
South Northamptonshire is starting to see its Covid cases rise, official data shows
The coronavirus vaccine programme in England will expand under-40s for the first time tomorrow. Currently the national booking service shows the scheme is only open people over 40
Holidays to Spain with NO test or vaccine passport needed to get into the country
Spain will not demand any British holidaymaker presents a covid passport or proof of a negative test on arrival from May 20, it was revealed today.
But with no sign of the UK adding the country to its 'green list' of destinations, travellers will still have to self-isolate for ten days when they get home and at least two PCR tests.
British holidaymakers will be able to freely enter the country from next week as long as the UK's Covid infection rate remains below 50 cases per 100,000 people. It is currently at 21.3.
Spain will remain on Britain's 'amber list' of destinations until at least June 7, when the Government carries out its next review, but experts are predicting it may not go green until the end of June at the earliest.
That means that any Briton heading there before then has to quarantine for 10 days at home on return and take two PCR tests on days two and eight of their self-isolation.
It came as Greece said it was confident it would go green on June 7, with tourism minister Haris Theoharis saying they were 'disappointed' not to be on the list with Portugal from Monday, May 17.
Green list status means Britons returning from those 12 countries don't have to quarantine but must have a negative lateral flow test in the 72 hours before they return home and a PCR test on day 2 after they get back.
Confirming free entry into Spain, tourism minister Reyes Maroto said: 'It will allow the opening of the British market so they can come to Spain. They (Britons) could come from May 20 onwards without a PCR if the incidence rates are below the range currently under review, which is around 50 cases per 100,000 people.'
NHS national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said the success of the rollout was owed to 'careful planning and precision of NHS staff'.
He added: 'With nearly three quarters of people in their 40s having already received their first jab, the NHS is opening up to people aged 38 and 39 from tomorrow.
'We must not forget that behind the huge numbers of people jabbed, there has been a huge amount of hard work from our staff, aided by incredible volunteers across the country. We are incredibly grateful for their efforts.
'When you get that text - book your appointment - and join the millions who have already been jabbed, protecting both yourself and your loved ones.'
Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: 'Our incredible vaccination programme has already saved thousands of lives and has helped to significantly reduce hospital and infection rates, allowing us to begin safely easing restrictions.
'Vaccines are our way out of the pandemic and I'm delighted we are now inviting people aged 38-39 to get their jabs. I urge everybody to get the vaccine as soon as they are eligible to protect yourself and your loved ones.'
The vaccine rollout is currently in phase two - which includes people between 20 to 49 - and is moving down by age.
The Government says it is on track to fully vaccinate every adult in Britain by the end of July.
Everyone in phase one of the scheme, which included elderly people and patients with underlying health conditions, has already been offered a vaccine.
Uptake is thought to be around 90 per cent in the over-60s UK-wide, while coverage in the over-50s is above 50 per cent and still climbing. Over-50s only started to be invited last month.
The bulk of vaccines given out in Britain so far have been AstraZeneca, which was being produced domestically and is easier to store than the American jabs, which need to be kept at extremely low temperatures and transported using special equipment.
But as the rollout progresses tomorrow officials have been told to turn to the Pfizer and Moderna shots.
The JCVI - which advises the Government on how best to vaccinate the population - said younger people are should be offered an alternative to the UK jab because of its link to blood clots.
So far regulators have spotted major blood clots in 242 people given the AstraZeneca vaccine, of whom 49 died. But they are occurring more in younger adults, with a rate of around one in 60,000 under-40s.
Experts said the infection rate in the UK is now so low that the risk of the rare clots outweigh that of Covid in younger adults, who often only suffer mild illness.
They will be offered the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines instead, so long as there is enough supply and it won't delay the rollout.
Anyone, no matter what age, who has been given their first dose of the AstraZeneca jab and didn't suffer the complication is being urged to come forward for their second.