Fresh fears have been raised for England’s June 21 lockdown easing after cases of the Indian variant doubled in a week.
Official data shows 6,959 UK cases of the mutant Covid strain have been detected as of May 26 – up from 3,424 on May 19.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock last night admitted the strain is now dominant in the UK, with overall new cases at their highest for six weeks.
A Tory minister today warned it was “impossible” to know if the final stage of England’s lockdown roadmap can go ahead as planned on June 21.
Step four is meant to allow indoor gatherings of any size and allow remaining venues like nightclubs to reopen.
But Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky News: “It’s impossible for anyone to know what the situation will be like in a week or two weeks’ time”.
He added: “We’ll be looking at the data, we’ve said repeatedly that we won’t make a final decision about the 21st of June until the 14th of June, a week before the established date.
“So I can’t guarantee one thing or the other.”
Mr Kwarteng insisted that “as of today”, there is nothing in the data to suggest the date must move.
But speaking to BBC Breakfast, he added: “We were very clear we’d be looking at the scientific data before we rush to any conclusions.
“And we’ve said that as far as I can see, there’s nothing in the data that will delay the date but we’ve said we’re always reviewing the data and we’ll come to a final conclusion on whether to reopen on June 21 on June 14.”
The latest rise is slightly less steep than previously, when the B.1.617.2 variant had more than doubled every single week since 202 cases were identified on April 27.
Announcements had put it at 520 on May 7, 1,313 on May 13, and 3,424 on May 20.
But Prof Andrew Hayward of SAGE sub-group NERVTAG warned: “It only takes five or six doublings for that to get up to, say, a quarter of a million cases and then you could see pressure on the NHS.”
He told the BBC: “There is a good argument for caution until such time as we’ve had a much higher proportion of the population double-vaccinated.”
Another advisor to government, Peter Openshaw, told Politico: “If it carries on growing like this and we start seeing a significant rise in hospital admissions I would be doubtful [about June 21].”
Boris Johnson is still waiting for crucial data on how transmissible the variant is – with hopes it will show double-jabbed people are mostly safe.
Dr Helen Wall, Senior Responsible Officer for the jab programme in Bolton, offered a glimmer of hope today – saying just a “handful” of those in hospital with the new strain had had both doses of their vaccine.
Separate Public Health England data shows that from 5,599 variant sufferers up to May 25, only 177 were known to have received both doses of the vaccine. Two of those died.
By comparison, 3,367 people who tested positive for the new strain were entirely unvaccinated, eight of whom died so far.
A further 1,093 cases and two deaths involved people who’ve had one dose of the vaccine.
Despite the positive signs, Independent SAGE member Professor Christina Pagel – who is not a government advisor and is part of a separate group – said the roadmap should be delayed.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Certainly we have weakened the link significantly between cases and hospitalisations, but we haven’t broken it.”
She added: “We now have fewer restrictions in England than we’ve had since the pandemic started.
“So if enough people get infected, even a really small proportion who need hospital can still end up being quite large absolute numbers.”
She added: “I think what’s demoralising is having a third wave. If we can just delay international travel, delay Stage 4 of the road map until we have a much higher proportion of people vaccinated.”