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UK could see tiers and June date pushed back due to Indian variant spread

UK could see tiers and June date pushed back due to Indian variant spread


Ministers are considering contingency plans for local lockdowns or a delay to reopening after June 21 in response to concern about the spread of the Indian variant of coronavirus.

Speaking earlier today, George Eustice, the environment secretary, said that the government was conducting “intensive surveillance” of those areas where cases of the Indian variant had been identified and were prepared to take further action to control local outbreaks.

“If we do have a deterioration in some of these areas, then of course we can’t rule out that we would put in place certain local lockdowns,” he said.

Eustice added that the government’s preferred strategy was encourage vaccine uptake in the effective areas – particularly among those groups where up take had been low.

“I think maybe in those areas when they see the resurgence of the virus, it may prompt them to think ‘actually, this is serious, the vaccine is effective, it is preventing the spread of this in other areas so now let’s get it,” he told Sky News.

Officials have drawn up plans modelled on the Tier 4 restrictions introduced last year. Under the measures, people would be advised to stay at home and non-essential shops and hospitality would be closed if the new strain was not brought under control.

Businesses in areas subject to the restrictions would receive grants of up to £18,000. The scheme would be administered by local authorities, with payments adjusted according to the length of restrictions.

Another scenario anticipates a delay to the June 21 date for easing lockdown restrictions. In this case grants would be made available for the worst-affected sectors, such as nightclubs, and for “mass events” including festivals.

Boris Johnson regards local lockdowns as a “last resort” in the event that other measures, such as surge testing and increasing the level of vaccinations in the worst-hit areas, are not successful. Ministers are concerned that local lockdowns in towns and cities would not work and believe that they would instead need to be imposed on a regional basis to have a significant impact, although this would have bigger consequences for the economy. One source said that such measures could lead to a “patchwork” of restrictions across the country that people would ignore.

They are also concerned that any move to roll back on the roadmap for opening up the UK would meet with fierce opposition from Tory backbenchers.

Today the senior Tory MP Sir John Redwood told Times Radio that the government must stick to the agreed dates.

“As a rule maker, I will argue very strongly that we’ve had enough of rules,” he said.

“I think the government should say to everyone: you have two perfectly good choices, the choice we recommend, is you have the vaccine because it’s pretty effective. And it looks as if it’s as safe, as can be expected. But if you really don’t like the vaccine, then it’s your duty to protect yourself by

The Indian variant is the dominant strain of coronavirus in Bolton and Blackburn and has spread to 86 areas across the country, including some parts of London and Bedford. The number of confirmed cases has risen by 76 per cent since Thursday to 2,323.

Bedford’s director of public health, Vicky Head, today said there has been a tenfold increase in coronavirus cases over the past month in the area after the more transmissible Indian strain prompted a “massive rise” in infections.

She told BBC Breakfast that cases in the borough had jumped from “three or four” a day to up to ten times that figure over the past month. Bedford now has the second-highest rate of coronavirus in England, with 214 new cases recorded in the seven days to May 13.

Head said there had been 80 confirmed cases of the Indian variant recorded in Bedford. “What we know is what we’ve been seeing locally, which is a really massive rise in cases,” she added.

“About three or four weeks ago we were having three or four cases a day. We are now up to ten times that.”

She added: “What we think now is that pretty much all of our cases are likely to be the variant from India… That’s one of the really striking things about the variant, is just how transmissible it is. If someone goes to school and tests positive, we are then seeing their whole family test positive.”

Surge testing has started in Bedford, with Hancock saying the town is now the “next biggest cause of concern” after Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen.

Downing Street and Matt Hancock, the health secretary, made clear yesterday that local lockdowns were not being ruled out. Hancock said: “It is not where we want to go. Of course we don’t rule it out, but we have seen the approach that we are taking [surge testing] works.”

The Indian variant is the dominant strain of coronavirus in Bolton and Blackburn and has spread to 86 areas across the country, including some parts of London and Bedford. The number of confirmed cases has risen by 76 per cent since Thursday to 2,323.

Bedford’s director of public health, Vicky Head, today said there has been a tenfold increase in coronavirus cases over the past month in the area after the more transmissible Indian strain prompted a “massive rise” in infections.

She told BBC Breakfast that cases in the borough had jumped from “three or four” a day to up to ten times that figure over the past month. Bedford now has the second-highest rate of coronavirus in England, with 214 new cases recorded in the seven days to May 13.

Head said there had been 80 confirmed cases of the Indian variant recorded in Bedford. “What we know is what we’ve been seeing locally, which is a really massive rise in cases,” she added.

“About three or four weeks ago we were having three or four cases a day. We are now up to 10 times that.”

She added: “What we think now is that pretty much all of our cases are likely to be the variant from India… That’s one of the really striking things about the variant, is just how transmissible it is. If someone goes to school and tests positive, we are then seeing their whole family test positive.”

Surge testing has started in Bedford, with Hancock saying the town is now the “next biggest cause of concern” after Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen.

The prime minister urged people to be “cautious” when hugging others as the third tranche of lockdown restrictions was eased. The guidance against having physical contact with others from outside the household has been removed and people are allowed to mix indoors, including in pubs.

In a sign of the concern within government, Downing Street said that the conclusion of reviews into social distancing and Covid passports may now be delayed until next month. Less than a week ago Johnson was considering a “maximalist” approach, removing the need for facemasks in most public places and dropping the one-metre social distancing rule. Those plans are on hold while data on the spread of the Indian variant is assessed.

The government will open the vaccination programme today to those aged 36 and 37 as it seeks to accelerate the present rate of 500,000 jabs a day to 800,000 within a fortnight. Hancock said the government had enough Pfizer-BioNTech doses to vaccinate children aged 12 in the autumn.

Conservative MPs said the easing of restrictions should not be delayed as a consequence of people refusing to take vaccines. The government disclosed that most of those in hospital with the Indian variant in Bolton had not been vaccinated despite being eligible. Mark Harper, a Conservative MP and head of the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group, said: “You can’t say ‘I’m not going to take the vaccine, but I need everybody else to change their lives to protect me’. I’m afraid that risk you run — it’s on you. We can’t hold back wider society because of it.”

Last summer the government used a tiered system to implement regional lockdowns. Parts of the country were put under Tier 4, which was equivalent to a full lockdown, while other areas were placed under Tier 3 with fewer restrictions.

The Times has been told that in preparation for local lockdowns officials are drawing up plans to adapt restart grants, which offer businesses payments of up to £18,000. The scheme, which is administered by local authorities, could be adapted to directly compensate businesses in affected areas.

A Treasury source said that the department did not expect any additional funding because schemes, including the £5 billion restart grant initiative, had been extended until September to provide a cushion in the event the easing of restrictions is delayed.

In the event that the June 21 reopening is delayed, officials are understood to be considering sector-specific grants for affected businesses.

Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, yesterday said he was “confident” that lockdown restrictions would be eased next month on the basis of the present evidence. He appeared to strike a much more upbeat tone than the prime minister, who suggested last week that the full easing of lockdown restrictions on June 21 would not go ahead.



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