Boris Johnson Says Indian Variant Could Make It "More Difficult" To Lift Covid Restrictions In June
Boris Johnson has warned the June lockdown easing measures could be at risk
Boris Johnson has said Monday's lockdown lifting would go ahead as planned but hinted there could be delays to plans to lift restrictions in June.
Speaking at a Downing Street briefing on Friday, the Prime Minister said fears that the new Indian variant was "more transmissible" could lead to "serious disruption" to the fourth step of lockdown easing on 21 June.
It comes after the new strain was designated a "variant of concern" after four people in the UK died from the virus.
Johnson said new clusters of the variant had been seen in Bolton and Blackburn and in some other parts of the country.
But he said while it was unclear how much more the new strain was likely to spread, he added that if it was "significantly more transmissable" then "we are going to be facing some hard choices" in relation to the June lockdown easing.
However, the PM said that the planned lockdown easing on Monday would continue because "at this stage, there is no evidence of increased cases translating to unmanageable pressures on the NHS, even in Bolton."
He added: "I do not believe that we need, on the present evidence, to delay our road map and we will proceed with our plan to move to step three in England from Monday.
"But I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress and could make it more difficult to move to step four in June."
In a bid to tackle the new strain, Johnson said the government would accelerate second vaccine doses for the over-50s and those who are clinically vulnerable by reducing the recommended gap from twelve weeks to just eight.
"I believe we should trust in our vaccines to protect the public whilst monitoring the situation as it develops very closely because the race between our vaccination programme and the virus may be about to become a great deal tighter and it's more important than ever therefore that people get the protection of a second dose," he said.
"So following advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation we will accelerate remaining second doses to the over-50s and those clinically vulnerable right across the country so those doses come just eight weeks after the first [one]."
And hinting that further steps might be taken to increase vaccine uptake, especially in areas with outbreaks of the disease, he added: "The race between our vaccination programme and the virus may be about to get tighter."
His comments come amid criticism of the government's approach, with Labour MP Yvette Cooper, who chairs the Commons home affairs committee, saying the PM made "major errors" in his aproach to Covid border restrictions.
She said that earlier this year the government had been warned about the new Indian variant but had "inexplicably delayed putting India on red list til 23 April after which many thousands of people had returned from India bringing in many hundreds of new variant cases."
She added: "Over 1,000 India variant cases identified already in UK and Government is warning AGAIN about local lockdowns. THIS WAS PREDICTABLE BUT IT WAS NOT INEVITABLE. Over a year on from the start of this pandemic and the Government has still not learned the basic lessons at the border."
Meanwhile, Johnson urged people in Bolton to attend vaccine appointments when offered and to continue taking twice-weekly rapid Covid tests, saying "it's now more vital than ever you play your part to stop the spread."
And he called on people planning to travel to areas with higher rates of the new variant to "think twice" before visiting family and friends living there.
He added: "We want people in those areas to recognise that there is extra risk, an extra threat of disruption to progress caused by this new variant and just to exercise their discretion and judgment in a way I'm sure that they have been throughout this pandemic."