The government is “absolutely open” to delaying the June 21 unlocking in England if the Indian variant, otherwise known as Delta, worsens the country’s coronavirus recovery prospects.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock stressed that June 21 was a “not before” date and that it was only “pencilled in” as the next step out of lockdown.
He also implied that social distancing could continue beyond the final stage of the Prime Minister’s road map.
The comments come as Covid-19 cases have continued to surge in the UK amid reports Boris Johnson is considering delaying so-called freedom day by at least two weeks in order to allow more people to be fully vaccinated against the Indian variant.
What Matt Hancock said
The Health Secretary, pressed on whether the June 21 removal of restrictions could be postponed if the Indian variant data “gets bad”, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “We are absolutely open to doing that if that’s what needs to happen.
“We said in the road map that June 21 is the date by which we would not take Step 4 before that date and that we would look at the data.
“That is exactly what we are doing, so the road map was set up in order to be able to take these sort of changes into account.”
It has been reported that revisions to the road map could see the Government backtrack on encouraging a return to the workplace, while social distancing in bars and restaurants is likely to remain, along with limits on audiences in theatres and cinemas.
Indian variant has made unlocking decision ‘more difficult’
Mr Hancock admitted the emergence of the Indian variant, which has become dominant in the UK, had made the “calculation” on whether to proceed with unlocking this month “more difficult” as he revealed the latest scientific advice is that the mutation – also known as the Delta variant – is 40% more transmissible than the Kent strain.
The Health Secretary, with a decision on lockdown easing due in the next week, said he “wouldn’t rule out” measures such as wearing face coverings in public settings and working from home where possible continuing in the long term.
“The way we are looking at this is Step 4 involves the removal of the remaining social restrictions like the rule of six and some of the business closures which are still there,” he told the show.
“And separately we have a piece of work on what the social distancing rules should be after that.”
Latest Covid figures
Of the 12,431 Indian variant cases so far confirmed in the UK, 10,797 are in England, 1,511 in Scotland, 97 in Wales and 26 in Northern Ireland.
On Friday the UK recorded its highest number of new confirmed coronavirus cases – 6,238 – since late March, according to official figures.
Numbers were slightly down over the weekend, with 5,765 lab-confirmed cases reported on Saturday and a further 5,341 on Sunday, when a further four people were recorded to have died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19.