ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke reports on the measures being used to stamp out the Indian variant
Second doses of coronavirus vaccines for eligible groups could be brought forward and surge testing will be deployed after cases of an Indian Covid variant more than doubled in the past week in the UK.
The government announcement came after Public Health England (PHE) data published on Thursday showed there are 1,313 cases of the B16172, also known as VOC-21APR-02 variant in the country, up from 520 the previous week.
The cases are largely in the north west of England, with some in London.
Surge testing has already been deployed in Bolton and will soon begin in Formby on Merseyside after cases were detected in the areas.
The Department of Health said increased genomic sequencing and enhanced contact tracing was also take place in affected areas.
There are fears the Indian variant could be more transmissible than the Kent variant which is currently the dominant strain in the UK.
ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke reports on the data released today which shows this variant is more transmissible than the Kent variant
The Indian variant does not appear to have yet led to an increase in deaths and hospitalisations.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the government is "monitoring the situation very carefully and will not hesitate to take further action if necessary".
He urged anyone who lives in an area of the country where surge testing is taking place to get a test in a bid to stop the spread of any variant.
Earlier on Thursday, the prime minister refused to rule out local lockdowns in a bid to combat new coronavirus strains, after saying he is "anxious" about the "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.
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."
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 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"
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.
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.”
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