A top Tory has claimed England is “very likely” to completely abandon lockdown rules on June 21 despite the Indian variant.
Kwasi Kwarteng claimed the country could still end all legal restrictions, as hoped, if the B.1.617.2 Covid strain does not prove resistant to a vaccine.
He told Sky News “I fully expect that we’ll be reopened on June 21”, adding: “I think it’s very likely to happen.
“The vaccines are working against the Indian variant. We’ve got to look at the numbers so we’ve got some flexibility.
“But there’s nothing I’ve seen and there’s nothing the Prime Minister’s seen up to now that suggests we’re going to delay that June 21 date.”
The Business Secretary risks being accused of mixed messaging – days after Boris Johnson said the June 21 unlocking could have to be delayed.
On Friday the Prime Minister said today’s easing – with indoor gatherings of up to six people, hugging and overnight stays all allowed – would go ahead, but “this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress and could make it more difficult to move to step four in June”.
More than 1,300 cases of the faster-transmitting strain have been detected in the UK, with the number more than doubling each week for two weeks in a row.
SAGE member Sir Jeremy Farrar warned scientists still don’t know if the vaccine rollout has “decoupled” infection rates from the number of people ending up in hospital or with ‘Long Covid’.
He told the BBC: “That is the key question and to be honest we don’t know that today.”
The expert warned “we may have to reverse back” into more lockdown if the Indian or another variant proves resistant to a vaccine – as the B.1.617.2 strain is “becoming dominant in parts of the UK”.
Reports today claim ministers are pushing more strongly for lockdown to end fully on June 21 – amid claims most of those hospitalised declined a vaccine.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said yesterday: “In Bolton, where we’ve seen a number of people in hospital with this new Indian variant, the vast majority of them have been eligible for a jab but not taken the jab.”
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said there were “concerns” about small numbers of older people who are yet to take up their vaccine offer.
“The biggest risk comes from, if there are large numbers of older people who are unvaccinated,” he told Times Radio.
Defending the decision to ease the lockdown, Mr Kwarteng told Sky News: “Yes, things are opening up but people should have common sense, they should use judgment and I think if we act in a reasonable way, there is no reason to suppose that we can’t reopen the economy entirely on June 21.
“I think there has to be a degree of common sense, a bit of caution and people shouldn’t be running away being too exuberant, I suppose.
“I think we just need to be measured and cautious.”
He added: “(Health Secretary) Matt Hancock said yesterday very clearly that he had a lot of confidence that the vaccination does work against the Indian variant.
“But of course we can’t definitely prove anything until we’ve eased up and we see what the actual data shows, and that’s why we’ve got a degree of flexibility.
“But there is nothing in the evidence now that we’ve seen that suggests that the vaccine isn’t very effective against the Indian variant.”
Despite new figures today putting the UK’s cost of Covid at £372 BILLION, a string of experts said they will be more cautious than government advice allows as the economy reopens.
Prof Adam Finn, of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) said scientists still don’t know exactly how fast the B.1.617.2 strain transmits – with over 1,300 cases already in the UK.
He told Sky News “mixing people together at this particular point in time… is really actually quite risky.”
Prof Finn added: “On a personal level… I’m advising my family and friends to continue to be very careful about making contact with each other until we’re clearer about just what’s going to happen with this variant over the next two or three weeks.”