England may need to wait longer than planned before Covid-19 restrictions are fully lifted as a coronavirus variant first found in India spreads rapidly in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned on Thursday.
Johnson had previously laid out a roadmap out of lockdown for England, with all restrictions to end on June 21, but warned that the swift spread of the variant could threaten that plan.
Next steps would depend on how robust the country’s “vaccine fortifications” against the variant were, according to the prime minister.
“I don’t see anything currently in the data to suggest that we have to deviate from the roadmap, but we may need to wait,” he said.
The British government manages lockdown restrictions for England, while devolved authorities for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland take their own decisions.
Weekly figures showed there were nearly 7,000 confirmed cases of the variant B.1.617.2 in Britain, double last week’s total.
Health secretary Matt Hancock told parliament that a formal assessment would be made on June 14 as to whether restrictions could be lifted on June 21.
“We will only do that if it’s safe,” he told parliament. Later at a news conference, Hancock said up to three-quarters of new coronavirus cases were B.1.617.2.
The variant of concern is thought to spread more rapidly than the previously dominant B.1.1.7 “Kent” variant, although experts say that vaccines still offer protection against severe disease.
On Saturday, Public Health England said two shots of Covid–19 vaccine were almost as effective against B.1.617.2 as they were against the Kent variant, which Hancock said at the time increased his confidence that restrictions would be lifted next month.
Asked why the economy’s reopening would be jeopardised by the variant if Covid–19 vaccines still worked against it, Hancock said that not everyone had taken up vaccines they were eligible for.
Hancock also said that 10 per cent of people hospitalised with the new variant had been double vaccinated – a sign that vaccines work well, but not perfectly.
“We already knew this but we’re better able to calibrate as we see these data,” he said. “We will learn more about this over the forthcoming week or two, before we make an assessment.”