Concerns over the spread of the coronavirus variant first detected in India could affect the final lifting of restrictions in England, a UK minister has conceded.
The government plans to press ahead with the final stage of its lifting of lockdown on 21 June, when most restrictions will be lifted, including all legal limits on social contact.
Foreign Office minister James Cleverly told Sky News on Thursday that any decisions to delay easing restrictions would be “driven by the data” on infection rates and hospitalisations in the run-up to the next phase of the reopening.
He said: “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.”
His comments came as Prof James Naismith, from the University of Oxford, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the variant first detected in India, known as B.1.617.2, “will get everywhere”. He said he did not believe that local restrictions would work to contain the variant, and urged the government to tackle it as a country-wide problem.
He said: “We keep learning this lesson, but we know that this will be the case. 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.”
Public Health England figures to be released on Thursday are expected to show that the number of cases linked to the variant have tripled in a week. The i newspaper reported that scientists on the Sage advisory committee would hold an urgent meeting on Thursday to discuss the threat.
The variant is thought to be even more transmissible than the one first detected in Kent. Researchers at Imperial College London found that while coronavirus case rates have halved compared with March, the variant of concern could be spreading faster than the “Kent variant”, at least in London.
On Wednesday, Boris Johnson said that the government intended, on 21 June, to lift guidance on working from home, the earliest date at which nearly all restrictions could be lifted as step four in the roadmap. He told MPs: “We’ll wait until we’re able to say that with more clarity a bit later on because we must be guided by what’s happening with the pandemic.”