Boris Johnson cast fresh doubt on the potential lifting of lockdown restrictions from June 21 today after admitting data he was seeing were “worrying”.
The Prime Minister said evidence coming in was a “serious, serious concern” as he prepares to announce on Monday whether Freedom Day is being delayed.
He is said to be considering whether to order a two-week or four-week postponement to the relaxation of curbs that was pencilled in for June 21.
In a series of TV interviews at the G7 Summit in Cornwall, he fuelled fears the date for triggering Step Four of the Government’s unlocking “roadmap” would be shelved.
He told Sky News: “It’s clear that the Indian variant is more transmissible and it’s also true that the cases are going up, and that the levels of hospitalisation are going up.
“We don’t know exactly to what extent that is going to feed through into extra mortality, but clearly it’s a matter of serious, serious concern.”
Latest figures show the Indian strain is about 60% more infectious than the Kent variant which drove the winter surge and second wave.
Another 8,125 cases were diagnosed in the last 24 hours, with the rolling seven-day average up 58%.
Another 173 patients were admitted to hospital – up 14.4% in a week.
Asked if he was less optimistic now than he was at the end of May, the PM admitted: “Yes, that’s certainly fair.
“What we want to do is make sure that the roadmap is irreversible, but you can’t have an irreversible roadmap unless you’re prepared to be cautious.
“Some of the data is still open to question, but we’ll be making an announcement on Monday.”
Asked to guarantee he would not go backwards on the roadmap, he said: “The situation is dramatically different from what it was in either of the first two waves of the pandemic.
“Yes, it is absolutely correct to say that you’ve got cases going on up now from the Delta variant and you’ve got an increase in hospitalisations.
“But you’re seeing a different group now going into hospitals, largely and the outcomes, on the whole, are better, but that’s caused by the huge effectiveness of the vaccine rollout.”
Experts are not advising that restrictions are tightened, the PM said.
“Just to cheer you up a little bit, I would like to tell you that the scientists are agreed about one thing – they do not think there is any case for going reverse,” he added.
Public Health England now believes the Delta variant accounts for more than 90% of new Covid cases across the country.
The total number of infections attributed to the mutation now stands at 42,323.
Professor Peter Openshaw, a member of the Nervtag advisory group, said that it was a “disappointing setback” that the Delta variant first identified India seemed even more successful than the previous strains.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday: “This Delta variant seems to be about 60 per cent more transmissible than that (the Alpha, or Kent, variant).
“So it really has gone up another gear and that means that we really have to double down and not lose all the advantage that has been gained by the massive effort that has been put in so far.”
Professor Tom Solomon, director of the Health Protection Research Unit in Emerging and Zoonotic Infections at the University of Liverpool, said the country could not afford a “bad decision” on unlocking.
Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the SPI-M modelling group, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “The key thing now is not just looking at cases but really trying to establish the link between cases and hospital admissions.
“We are starting to see early signals that hospital admissions are going up but it is just slightly unclear exactly how much we may expect them to go up over the next couple of weeks given the vaccines are playing a very key role.
“Of course they (the vaccines) are not 100% perfect so we need to be cautious. We don’t want to go backwards when it comes to control, we don’t want to be slipping into another lockdown.”