Watch: Government not ruling out restrictions past 21 June
Boris Johnson has admitted that the government is “anxious” about the Indian variant of coronavirus and is “ruling nothing out”, as he hinted local restrictions may be needed.
Scientists are keeping a close eye on the spread of the variant across the UK, with new figures from Public Health England (PHE) on Thursday expected to show a big rise in cases.
Speaking at a primary school in Ferryhill, County Durham, the prime minister said: “It is a variant of concern, we are anxious about it.
“At the moment there is a very wide range of scientific opinion about what could happen.
“We want to make sure we take all the prudential, cautious steps now that we could take, so there are meetings going on today to consider exactly what we need to do.
“There is a range of things we could do, we are ruling nothing out.”
Asked if local lockdowns were possible, Johnson added: “There are a range of things we could do, we want to make sure we grip it...
“If we have to do other things, then of course the public would want us to rule nothing out."
Scientists from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) are holding a meeting today to assess the threat of the Indian variant
A member of Sage told The i that the final step of lockdown easing on 21 June could be delayed as a result of the figures.
But the prime minister said he can "see nothing that dissuades me from thinking we will be able to go ahead on Monday and indeed on 21 June everywhere".
Earlier, foreign office minister James Cleverly also reiterated that the government makes decisions based on the data.
He told Sky News: “Scientists on Sage will make their assessments, they will report that to government, and we will make decisions based on the data and the evidence that they provide.
“The prime minister, the health secretary, have always been clear that the easing of restrictions which allow us to get back to normality will be done at a pace and in a way which is safe.
“We will always be driven by the data.”
On Wednesday, education secretary George Eustice said that the government had not ruled out introducing increased local restrictions in COVID hotspots across the UK.
The Indian variant of coronavirus has been blamed for an increase in cases in England.
According to Public Health England (PHE) documents seen by The Guardian, 48 clusters of the variant have been identified – including ones linked to secondary schools and religious gatherings.
The variant is also thought to be behind a big increase in positive cases in Bolton, where the town's rate of infection is 133.5 per 100,000 people – up from 70.2 a week earlier.
But the spread of the Indian variant should be viewed as a country-wide problem, an expert has warned.
Professor James Naismith, from the University of Oxford, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday, that the variant may spread “way beyond” the local areas where it has been detected.
He said: “It will get everywhere. We keep learning this lesson, but we know that this will be the case.”
Naismith said he did not believe local restrictions would work to contain the variant.
He added: “When we tried locally having different restrictions in different regions that didn’t really make any difference. So I don’t think thinking about a localised strategy for containment will really work.”
However, professor Steven Riley, from Imperial College London, told Times Radio that while there was a need to keep an eye on variants, the UK was currently in a good place.
He added: “The top-line government policy is driven by protecting the NHS, so even if infection starts to go up, we then need to assess whether that’s bringing a lot of new cases into hospitals, and there’s certainly no sign of that at the moment.”
On Wednesday, the European Medicines Agency also said it was “pretty confident” that vaccines currently in use will be effective against the Indian variant.
The next stage of lockdown easing – that will see a return of indoor hospitality and an increase on social mixing – is set to go ahead as planned on 17 May.
Watch: How England will leave lockdown