There is no “conclusive” evidence to deviate from the road map out of lockdown despite concerns over the Indian coronavirus variant, Boris Johnson said.
The Prime Minister has previously warned the rise in cases of the highly transmissible variant of concern could risk the next stage of England’s road map out of lockdown, currently pencilled in for June 21, being delayed.
If outbreaks are limited, ministers could opt instead to push ahead with the reopening while keeping some areas under restrictions in an echo of the controversial tiers system introduced in 2020.
The Prime Minister said the “wall of defences” built up by the vaccination programme meant “I don’t see anything conclusive at the moment to say that we need to deviate from the road map”.
But, he added: “We’ve got to be cautious and we are keeping everything under very close observation.
“We’ll know a lot more in a few days’ time.”
Mr Johnson said data from hotspots including Bolton, Blackburn, Bedford and Sefton were being examined to find out more about the impact of the variant.
Asked whether local lockdowns could be used, Mr Johnson said: “We’ve just got to be cautious about the way we approach it and we will be letting people know as much as we can, as soon as we can.
“But at the moment we don’t see anything conclusive that makes us think we have to deviate from the road map.”
Earlier, Cabinet minister George Eustice had said local lockdowns “would be an option and we cannot rule anything out”.
Environment Secretary Mr Eustice told Sky News efforts were being stepped up to increase vaccine uptake, particularly among minority groups.
He said that in “pockets where uptake is low” efforts were being made with “community leaders, faith leaders in some of those BAME (black and minority ethnic) communities to really encourage people to come forward and have the vaccine”.
On LBC Radio he suggested that younger people needed to show the same enthusiasm for the jabs as the over-60s.
“We just need all those other, younger cohorts to also embrace the vaccine,” he said.
The possible return of tiered restrictions would be fiercely resisted, particularly in areas of north-west England which have endured longer lockdowns than most other parts of the country.
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said the focus should instead be on accelerating the vaccine programme in hotspots.
He said: “Last year, tiers did not work – they did not stop the spread of the virus.
“It would be hard for me to put out a message of caution in Greater Manchester when nationally the messaging is very different, that the road map is proceeding.
“We struggled with that mixed messaging all of last year.”
London Mayor Sadiq Khan told the PA news agency: “I think what we learned from last year is local lockdowns, the tiering system, just didn’t work, it failed.
“It failed because the virus doesn’t respect geographical boundaries.”
In other developments:
– Invitations were going out to 37-year-olds to get the coronavirus jab, to be followed on Wednesday by 36-year-olds.
– A total of 152,919 deaths have now occurred in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, the Office for National Statistics said.
– The Prime Minister stressed that countries on the travel “amber list” were “not somewhere you should be going on holiday” after Mr Eustice suggested people could visit family or friends in destinations in that category.
– Surge testing was launched in Nuneaton following the detection of cases of the Indian variant.
Over the coming days, ministers and officials will examine the information from hotspots to see how transmissible the Indian variant is and what impact the vaccines are having.
Bedford’s director of public health Vicky Head said she was “really worried” about the spread of the variant in the area.
She told BBC Breakfast on Tuesday there had been 80 confirmed cases of the variant in Bedford.
She added that one of the striking things about the variant is just how transmissible it is.
“If someone goes to school and tests positive, we are then seeing their whole family test positive,” she said.
“I am really worried about it.
“Everyone needs to understand just how transmissible this variant is.”
In the Commons on Monday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said there were 2,323 confirmed cases of the Indian strain in the UK, with 86 local authority areas recording at least five.
In Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen it is now the dominant strain with a total of 483 cases across the two areas, with Bedford the next worst area for the variant.
Mr Hancock expressed frustration that of the 19 hospital cases in Bolton, the majority had not had the vaccine, even though they were eligible.
Despite concerns the Indian variant is even more transmissible than the dominant Kent strain, the latest easing of lockdown restrictions went ahead as planned on Monday across most of England, Scotland and Wales.
It meant pubs and restaurants were able to welcome customers inside while people were able to socialise indoors and to hug family and friends outside their own households.
In Northern Ireland a decision is due this week on whether the next stage of easing can go ahead as planned on Monday.