Indian Covid variant: 'Appropriate to push on with lockdown easing' despite warnings, says Hancock

ITV News Correspondent Dan Rivers reports on the concerns around Monday's easing of lockdown

The Health Secretary has insisted it is "appropriate" to go ahead with Monday's major easing of lockdown in England, despite warnings about the rising number of Indian variant cases.

Matt Hancock said new evidence gives a "high degree of confidence" that coronavirus vaccines work against the variant, but he did not rule out a return to local lockdowns to stem resurgences. The ministers warned, however, that the highly transmissible variant could "spread like wildfire among the unvaccinated groups" as he urged people to come forward for jabs when eligible.

The Prime Minister has previously warned the variant could impact the June 21 date that had been set for the end of all restrictions in England.

Speaking on Sunday, Mr Hancock was also forced to defend the government against criticism it acted too late in imposing heightened border restrictions for travel from India.

Surplus vaccines may have already been offered to people in this age group Credit: Jacob King/PA

The Cabinet minister said there are now more than 1,300 cases of the so-called Indian variant in total and it is becoming "the dominant strain" in areas including Bolton and Blackburn in the North West. But offering good news to plans to ease restrictions without unleashing a fresh wave of infections and deaths, Mr Hancock said there is "new very early data" from Oxford University giving confidence that existing vaccines work against the variant.

"That means that we can stay on course with our strategy of using the vaccine to deal with the pandemic and opening up carefully and cautiously but we do need to be really very vigilant to the spread of the disease," he told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday. "We have a high degree of confidence that the vaccine will overcome."

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Mr Hancock said the government will decide on June 14 whether all legal restrictions can be ended in the final step of the road map out of lockdown on June 21. He did not rule out the possibility that Monday's easing may have to be reversed if the strain turns out to be very highly transmissible - but said the hope is the "cautious and irreversible approach" can continue. The health secretary said "we do not rule that out" when asked about the prospect of specific areas having heightened restrictions to tackle variants. "The approach we’re taking in Bolton and Blackburn is to absolutely pile in testing and vaccinations to try to get on top of this," he told Ridge. "So at the moment we’re taking the approach that worked in south London – which is this massive surge testing – but of course we don’t rule out further action. "Given though Bolton has been in some form of kind of a lockdown for a year, it’s not a step we want to take but of course we might have to take it and we will if it’s necessary to protect people."

Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), was asked whether the spread of the Indian variant could have been avoided had the border to India been closed more quickly. He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: "I don’t think it would have been avoided, it could have delayed things a little bit."

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Elsewhere, senior Labour MP Yvette Cooper suggested the foreign holiday ban should not end on Monday. The chairwoman of the Commons Home Affairs Committee told the BBC: "The government needs to slow down its plans. I don’t understand why it’s lifting some of its international travel restrictions tomorrow.

"I think they should be being much more cautious about that."