Health Secretary Matt Hancock has warned it is still “too early to say” if the lifting of lockdown in England will go ahead as planned on 21 June.
While Covid-19 cases, hospital admissions and deaths are being “severed” thanks to the successful vaccine rollout and months of restrictions, it is not yet clear if it will be safe to ease rules completely.
The warning comes after Mr Hancock told MPs on Wednesday (26 May) that there were 3,180 new cases of coronavirus in the UK, which is the “highest since April 12”.
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‘Pandemic isn’t over yet’
Despite the recent increase in cases, the Health Secretary insisted that the vaccines are working and said he “desperately” wants restrictions to be lifted on 21 June.
He appeared in the Commons on Thursday (27 May) to answer questions following the evidence given by former government aide Dominic Cummings on the handling of the pandemic.
Speaking to MPs, he said “this pandemic isn’t over yet”, adding: “Our vaccination programme has reached 73 per cent of the adult population, but that means that more than a quarter still haven’t been jabbed… 43 per cent of adults have had both jabs, but that means that more than half are yet to get the fullest possible protection that two jabs gives.
“Yesterday we saw 3,180 new cases of coronavirus, the highest since April 12, but thanks to the power of vaccination, in which I have always believed, the link from cases to hospitalisations and to deaths is being severed.”
It comes after Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, whose modelling was instrumental to the UK locking down in March 2020, said the Indian variant was now “the dominant strain” in the UK and the full reopening of society on 21 June “hangs in the balance”.
Asked in the Commons by former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt what measures could be taken to ensure the 21 June deadline, when all legal limits on social contact are due to be lifted, could go ahead, Mr Hancock said: “It is true that the Indian variant is spreading across the country, and estimates vary as to what proportion of the new cases each day are the variant first identified in India, which is more transmissible.
“Now my assessment is that it is too early now to say, yet, whether we can take the full step four on June 21.
“Like him, I desperately want us to, but we will only do that if it’s safe.
“We will make a formal assessment ahead of June 14 as to what step we can take on the 21st, and in that we will be both driven by the data, we will be advised on and guided by the science, and we will be fully transparent both with this House and with the public in those decisions.”
However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he doesn’t see anything in the current data which could cause the lockdown roadmap to be delayed, but said “we may need to wait” for more data
Mr Johnson told reporters: “As I have said many times I don’t see anything currently in the data to suggest that we have to deviate from the road map. But we may need to wait.
“Don’t forget the important point about the intervals between the steps of the road map, we put that five weeks between those steps to give us time to see what effect the unlockings are having.”
Vaccines are ‘highly effective’
Mr Hancock said that around one in 10 people in hospital with Covid-19 in current “hotspots” have received both doses of a Covid-19 vaccine.
However, the vast majority of people have not, which “gives us a high degree of confidence that the vaccine is highly effective.”
Figures for the seven days to 22 May show that, of the 315 local areas in England, 137 (43 per cent) have seen a rise in Covid rates, 162 (51 per cent) have seen a fall and 16 are unchanged.
Bolton in Greater Manchester continues to have the highest rate, with 1,286 new cases in the seven days to 22 May, which is the equivalent of 447.2 cases per 100,000 people. This is up from 321.7 in the seven days to 15 May.
On 24 May in England, there were 98 hospital admissions for Covid-19, slightly above the seven-day average (88) but down 98 per cent from the second-wave peak.
Tim Spector, lead scientist on the Zoe Covid Study app and professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, said the Indian variant was probably now dominant but there were no current signs of a third wave.
He said: “The Indian variant is now probably becoming the dominant strain in the UK but the national figures remain unaffected, despite fears the variant might start a third wave.
“The hotspots we’ve detected this week include Leicester, Bury and Bradford and we are still seeing higher numbers in Aberdeen, Kirklees and Bolton.
“Reassuringly, we aren’t seeing numbers rise in other surrounding areas.
“Our data also indicates vaccines are still effective against the Indian variant and this is likely the reason why cases haven’t increased and hospitalisation and deaths remain low.”