Johnson calls for 'heavy dose of caution' as England's lockdown eases despite Indian variant concerns

ITV News Correspondent Dan Rivers is with the businesses ready to reopen, despite concerns about variants

The Prime Minister has called for a "heavy dose of caution" as people in England enjoy a mass easing of lockdown restrictions with a return to indoor socialising and hugging.

Monday's relaxing of Covid rules comes against a backdrop of concerns over the Indian coronavirus variant, with vaccinations sped up and surge testing deployed in some areas.

Boris Johnson said "now everyone must play their part" as England pushes ahead with the third stage of the roadmap.

Pubs and restaurants are welcoming back customers indoors, household visits can resume and holidaymakers can head overseas as the foreign travel ban is lifted.

Hugs and other physical contact between households are permitted from Monday for the first time since restrictions began more than a year ago.

People will be able to hug their loved ones from Monday Credit: Pixabay

The swathe of changes comes as top scientists warn of a "perilous moment" in the pandemic, however, with the Indian variant feared to be as much as 50% more transmissible than the Kent strain.

The government insisted over the weekend it was still "appropriate" to continue with the easing despite the concerns, but did not rule out future local lockdowns.

In a statement, Mr Johnson said: "Together we have reached another milestone in our roadmap out of lockdown, but we must take this next step with a heavy dose of caution.

"We are keeping the spread of the variant first identified in India under close observation and taking swift action where infection rates are rising."

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He said the "current data does not indicate unsustainable pressure on the NHS", and that second vaccine doses are being accelerated to give the greatest protection to the most vulnerable.

On Sunday, the country reached the milestone of 20 million people having received both vaccine doses.

The PM's statement continued: "But now everyone must play their part – by getting tested twice a week, coming forward for your vaccine when called and remembering hands, face, space and fresh air.

"I urge everyone to be cautious and take responsibility when enjoying new freedoms today in order to keep the virus at bay."

Ministers are hoping surge testing and vaccines will allow a safe opening up of the nation, with jabs due to be extended to the over-35s this week.

Mass testing and vaccination is being stepped up in Bolton Credit: PA

Health Secretary Matt Hancock did not rule out the possibility of imposing local lockdowns in areas such as Bolton to tackle the Indian variant, which he warned could "spread like wildfire".

He said there are more than 1,300 cases of the Indian variant of concern, which is "relatively widespread in small numbers" and is becoming "the dominant strain" in Bolton and Blackburn.

But Mr Hancock said there is "new very early data" from Oxford University giving confidence that existing vaccines work against the variant.

Matt Hancock said the vaccine programme is a 'great British success story'. Credit: Yui Mok/PA

"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," Mr Hancock said.

Though the government is continuing with Monday’s relaxation, Mr Johnson has warned the Indian variant could jeopardise plans to end legal restrictions on June 21.

Clubs and gatherings of more than 30 people indoors will remain prohibited until the fourth and final phase of the road map.