The shadow of the highly infectious Indian variant of Covid-19 hung over Britain’s biggest step yet out of lockdown on Monday, as ministers warned they could not rule out regionalised restrictions or the reversal of moves towards normal life.
With pubs and restaurants reopening indoors in England and Wales and further relaxations in most of Scotland, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, urged Britons to enjoy their new freedoms with “a heavy dose of caution”.
New figures showed positive cases and deaths from coronavirus beginning to creep upwards after a precipitous fall from peaks in January, with infections in variant hotspots Bolton, Blackburn and Bedford continuing to grow.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, warned that the B1.617.2 variant, thought to be partly responsible for the raging pandemic in India, could “spread like wildfire” among unvaccinated groups in the UK.
Even with the number of Britons with two vaccine doses passing 20 million on Sunday and tests showing the Pfizer vaccine offers 97 per cent protection from mortality, the Indian variant has the potential to cause “a very, very large number of cases”, the health secretary warned.
While most of those hospitalised in Bolton had failed to take up the offer of immunisation, six patients had received the vaccine and one – who he described as “frail” – had been given both doses.
Mr Hancock announced that vaccines will be offered to the over-35s from this week, as the government accelerates its drive to protect more of the population. Early data from tests at Oxford University gave “a high degree of confidence” that vaccines are effective against the Indian variant, he said.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is considering reversing its advice that under-40s should be offered an alternative to the AstraZeneca jab, in a bid to speed up the rollout.
As well as the reopening of indoor hospitality, Monday sees the return of hugging and gatherings by family and friends in each other’s homes in England. Hotels and indoor entertainment venues will reopen in England and Wales, while most of Scotland – with the exception of Glasgow and Moray – will move from level 3 to level 2 restrictions, allowing groups of up to six to meet inside a home and stay overnight.
Mr Johnson said: “Together we have reached another milestone in our roadmap out of lockdown, but we must take this next step with a heavy dose of caution.
“We are keeping the spread of the variant first identified in India under close observation and taking swift action where infection rates are rising.
“The current data does not indicate unsustainable pressure on the NHS and our extraordinary vaccination programme will accelerate – with second doses being bought forward to give the most vulnerable maximum protection.
“But now everyone must play their part – by getting tested twice a week, coming forward for your vaccine when called and remembering hands, face, space and fresh air.
“I urge everyone to be cautious and take responsibility when enjoying new freedoms today in order to keep the virus at bay.”
In a round of media interviews on Sunday, Mr Hancock said it was “too early to say” whether the removal of most restrictions in England will go ahead as planned on 21 June.
And he was unable to rule out the reversal of Monday’s relaxations or the imposition of localised lockdowns in areas hit by the Indian variant.
“We don’t rule out further action,” he said. “It’s not a step we want to take, but of course we might have to take it and we will if it’s necessary to protect people.”
Mr Hancock insisted: “Our strategy remains on track. It is just that in the race between the vaccine and the variants, the variant has got more legs. That makes it more challenging but the overall strategy remains on track.”
The latest figures showed that 36,573,354 people had been vaccinated by Saturday (69.4 per cent of the adult population) of whom 20,103,658 had received a second dose (38.2 per cent).
The 20 million second-jab milestone was passed as the NHS smartphone app began recording individuals’ vaccine status for the first time, in a step which will be necessary for any future move to use proof of status a “passport” for access to certain venues.
In a possible sign of the impact of the Indian variant, positive tests over the week to 16 May were up 8.6 per cent on the previous seven days at 15,918, while deaths over the seven-day period were up 10.4 per cent at 74.
A member of the government’s Sage scientific advisory group said ministers must be ready to reverse Monday’s relaxations if there is evidence of a rapid rise in cases.
“I think we have to monitor this very carefully, I don’t think we should rule anything out,” Professor John Edmunds told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show. “So if things look like they’re getting worse rapidly, then I do think that action needs to be taken.”
Prof Edmunds added: “I think we should be concerned, but not panicking. We’re in a much, much better place now than we were when the Kent variant first hit us back in November, December.”
But another Sage member, former chief scientific adviser Professor Sir Mark Walport warned the pandemic is at a “perilous moment” and it will be “extremely important” to keep an eye on the numbers over the next few weeks.
“There’s every grounds to be very cautious about the ability to open up in June,” said Prof Walport.
Looking ahead to Monday’s relaxations, he told Sky News: “My advice is that just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should.
“As far as possible socialise outside, maintain social distancing, if you’re going to hug, hug cautiously.”
And Mr Hancock agreed. While saying he was looking forward to being able to hug his parents again after a year, he added: “We’ll probably do it outside and keep the ventilation going: hands, face and space.”