Matt Hancock has said the government is “absolutely open” to delaying the lifting of lockdown restrictions in England on June 21.
A surge in Covid cases of the the Indian variant, also known as the Delta strain, has led to calls for stage 4 of Boris Johnson’s roadmap to be pushed back.
Speaking to Sky News’ Trevor Phillips On Sunday programme, the health secretary said the Delta variant was 40% more transmissible than the Kent variant.
“That means that it is more difficult to manage this virus with the new Delta variant,” he said. “So ultimately it does make the calculation more difficult for June 21.”
Hancock, who confirmed the under-30s would start being invited for their jab next week, said the vaccination programme had “severed but not broken” the link between a rise in cases and an increase in the number of people being admitted to hospital.
“After two doses of vaccine we are confident that you get the same protection that you did with the old variant,” he said. “The good news is that the vaccine still works just as effectively.”
“Everybody must go and get their second jab though because the first isn’t as effective on its own.”
In a separate interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Hancock was asked if the June 21 date could be delayed. He said: “We are absolutely open to doing that if that’s what needs to happen.”
Of the 12,431 Indian variant cases so far confirmed in the UK, 10,797 are in England, 1,511 in Scotland, 97 in Wales and 26 in Northern Ireland.
On Friday the UK recorded its highest number of new confirmed coronavirus cases – 6,238 – since late March, according to official figures, although Saturday’s number was down slightly at 5,765 lab-confirmed cases.
Dame Anne Johnson, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London (UCL), said reopening would be a “very finely judged decision” and that society will need to learn to live with coronavirus.
Describing the incoming data this week as “absolutely critical”, the president of the Academy of Medical Sciences told Trevor Phillips On Sunday: “We certainly don’t want to go on delaying forever. It’s going to be a very finely judged decision when we see these results.”
It came as former prime minister Tony Blair said it was “time to distinguish for the purposes of freedom” between people who are vaccinated and unvaccinated when it comes to travel and domestically.
Blair told Sky News it makes “no sense at all to treat those who have had vaccination as the same as those who haven’t”.
The former Labour leader was reacting to a report published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change which says “vaccine status matters” and champions the idea of health passes “to allow citizens to prove their status in a secure, privacy-preserving way”.
He added: “By allowing greater freedom and fewer restrictions to the vaccinated we’re providing a powerful incentive to take up vaccination, but this is a perfectly valid public policy objective. Other than for medical reasons, people should be vaccinated.”