Covid: Boris Johnson 'anxious' about Indian variant and refuses to rule out local lockdowns

Surge testing and mobile vaccine units are being used in Bolton, the UK's hotspot of an Indian variant, ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke reports

The prime minister has refused to rule out local lockdowns in a bid to combat new coronavirus strains, after saying he is "anxious" about a "variant of concern" first identified in India.

Boris Johnson said there's no evidence to suggest any delays to England's roadmap out of lockdown are needed, but admitted there "may be things we have to do locally".

He said there are a "range of things" the government could do to protect Britons from the Indian variant and ministers "will not hesitate" to act.

Cases of an Indian Covid variant have more than doubled in the past week in the UK, according to Public Health England (PHE) data.

Figures published on Thursday show there are 1,313 cases of the VOC-21APR-02 variant in the country, up from 520 the previous week.

Vaccines could be used 'as a sword' to try and cut Covid transmission, says Tom Clarke

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) is reportedly due to hold an emergency meeting on Thursday to discuss the spread of the Indian variant amid fears it could impact the roadmap out of lockdown.

Speaking at a primary school in Ferryhill, County Durham, Mr Johnson said: "At the moment, I can see nothing that dissuades me from thinking we will be able to go ahead on Monday and indeed on June 21."

Asked if local lockdowns were possible, Prime Minister Johnson said: “There are a range of things we could do, we want to make sure we grip it.

“Obviously there’s surge testing, there’s surge tracing.”

He added: “If we have to do other things, then of course the public would want us to rule nothing out. We have always been clear we would be led by the data."

Downing Street said officials would not “rule anything out” when asked if the government was considering surge vaccinations to accompany surge testing in areas with spikes of new variants.

Dr Susan Hopkins, Covid-19 Strategic Response Director at PHE, said: "Cases of this variant are rising in the community and we are continuously monitoring its spread and severity to ensure we take rapid public health action.

"We need to act collectively and responsibly to ensure that variants do not impact on the progress we have all made to drive down levels of Covid-19 and the increased freedom that brings."

It is thought the Indian variant of coronavirus is the main contributor to the country's deadly new wave of coronavirus, though experts in the UK believe current coronavirus vaccines do protect against it.

The variant B16172, also known as VOC-21APR-02, was first detected in India in March.

It is one of three related variants of the virus. The other two variants - called B16171 and B16173 remain classified as "variant under investigation"

Surge testing has been deployed in parts of Sefton, Merseyside, after cases of the variant were confirmed in the area.

NHS Test and Trace and Sefton Council are urging everyone over the age of 16 who lives, works or studies in the Formby area to take a PCR Covid test from Friday. The Department of Health and Social Care said those in Formby with confirmed cases have self-isolated and their contacts are being identified.

Concerns about the variant come as Public Health England revealed that Covid-19 case rates have increased slightly across most regions of England.

In the North West the rate was 32.6 cases per 100,000 people in the seven days to May 9, up from 25.5 the previous week, while in the East Midlands it increased from 23.1 to 29.8 over the same period.

Slight increases were also recorded in the East of England, London, North East and South-West, which had the lowest rate at 13.1, up from 12.2.

Yorkshire and the Humber recorded the highest rate at 40.5 cases per 100,000 people, down slightly from 42.5 in the previous week.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the government “is worried about the rise of the Indian variant” and "watching it very, very carefully”.

On local lockdowns, he said: "We rule nothing out. We’ve all seen last year what might be necessary.

"At the moment our goal is to tackle this through making sure everybody who tests positive gets that enhanced contact tracing and of course the vaccine programme is giving a high level of protection right across the board."

Number 10 said local lockdowns would not be imposed through the tier system, which was previously employed in England to apply different restrictions to different areas.

“There are no plans to reintroduce tiering measures, like I say we have got a raft of measures available to us which are already in place, with regards local testing, surge testing and tracing.”

Despite concerns about the Indian variant, the PM said he is "optimistic" about the UK getting back to normality.

Asked if masks and social distancing would soon be a thing of the past, Mr Johnson said: “I think we have to wait a little bit longer to see how the data is looking but I am cautiously optimistic about that and provided this Indian variant doesn’t take off in the way some people fear, I think certainly things could get back much, much closer to normality.”

Listen to the ITV News Politics Podcast: