Local lockdowns keeping some parts of England under stricter restrictions than others beyond June 21 are “an option”, a cabinet minister has confirmed.
There is continuing concern about the fast-spreading B.1.617.2 variant – first identified in India - and whether it could lead the government to delay the lifting of rules at the end of next month.
Speaking to Sky News on Tuesday morning, environment secretary George Eustice said the government “can never rule out that there may have to be a delay”.
Asked whether it was possible for parts of the country to move ahead on June 21 while others are kept under restrictions, Eustice said: “That would be an option and we cannot rule anything out, obviously, at this stage.
“But our preferred outcome is that we really double down and get the vaccination rates up in those areas that are seeing these problems so that we can give them the immunity that they need to this virus and then we won’t have to have any such local lockdowns.”
It came after The Times reported that ministers are considering contingency plans for local lockdowns if the strain cannot be brought under control.
In the Commons on Monday, health secretary Matt Hancock said there were now 2,323 confirmed cases of the Indian strain in the UK, with 86 local authority areas recording at least five.
Worst hit have been Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen – where it is now the dominant strain with a total of 483 cases across the two areas – followed by Bedford.
The authorities have responded by deploying “surge” vaccinations and testing in virus hotspots in an attempt to curb the spread of the disease.
However, Hancock expressed frustration that of the 19 hospital cases in Bolton, the majority had not had the vaccine, even though they were eligible.
Despite concerns the Indian variant is even more transmissible than the dominant Kent strain, the latest easing of lockdown restrictions went ahead as planned on Monday across most of England, Scotland and Wales.
It meant pubs and restaurants were able to welcome customers inside while people were able to socialise indoors and to hug family and friends outside their own households.