Indian strain 40% more transmissible as Hancock issues warning over June 21 easing

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Matt Hancock has warned it is "too early to say" whether lockdown measures can be scrapped on June 21 as the latest evidence shows a new Covid strain is 40% more transmissible.

The Health Secretary said the latest evidence showed the Delta variant – first detected in India – was 40% more infectious than the Kent strain which ripped through the UK in the winter.

And he raised fresh doubt over whether the Government would press ahead with its plan to lift all Covid-19 restrictions on June 21.

In a round of interviews, Mr Hancock said ministers were "absolutely open" to delaying the final step of the roadmap if the situation worsens.

Boris Johnson's lockdown roadmap promised to lift all legal limits on social contact at Step 4 of the roadmap – which was pencilled in for after June 21.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it was 'too early to say' if June 21 lockdown easing could go ahead
(Image: Getty Images)

Asked if he had seen anything in the data that could delay reopening this month, he told Sky News: "It is too early to make a final decision on that.

"The Prime Minister and I and the team will be looking at all of the data over this week.

"We have said that we will give people enough time ahead of the June 21 date which is pencilled in as the next step – which is to be not before June 21 – and the critical thing is to see whether the four tests we have set have been met."

He offered glimmers of hope over the success of the vaccine programme – and he said hospitalisations were "much more flat" despite a rise in cases in recent days.

But Mr Hancock warned that it was vital to consider the "very significant impact of a new variant – the Delta (also known as the Indian) variant – over the last month or so."

Public Health England said on Thursday that the Indian strain was now the dominant variant in the UK – with cases rocketing by 5,472 since last week to 12,431.

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The Health Secretary said the Indian variant had made the decisions behind the June 21 unlocking "more difficult".

He revealed that the latest advice was the mutation is 40% more transmissible than the Kent variant.

Boris Johnson is waiting for critical data on how quickly the new strain spreads before he makes his decision about the final stage of the lockdown roadmap.

SAGE papers recently revealed that experts feared it was up to 50% more transmissible but Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van Tam said it was likely to be half that.

Lockdown architect Professor Neil Ferguson warned on Friday that it could be up to 60% more infectious.

Mr Hancock said: "That means that it is more difficult to manage this virus with the new Delta variant.

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"But crucially, after two doses of vaccine we are confident that you get the same protection that you did with the old variant.

"So the good news is that the vaccine still works just as effectively.

"Everybody must go and get their second jab though because the first isn't as effective on its own.

"So ultimately it does make the calculation more difficult for June 21 but it doesn't change our strategy which is we all need to go and get vaccinated and that way we will break this link between the number of cases to the number of hospitalisations."

He told the BBC: "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.

Social distancing measures could remain in place after June 21, ministers have hinted
(Image: NurPhoto/PA Images)

"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 comes amid reports the Government is drawing up plans for a two-week delay to the final easing of restrictions to ensure more people are vaccinated.

Mr Hancock also refused to rule out keeping social distancing measures in place even if June 21 lockdown easing goes ahead.

Officials are gathering evidence on whether masks, working from home and the 'one metre plus' distancing rule can be axed.

Asked if these measures could continue in the long-term, the Health Secretary said: "Yes, I wouldn't rule that out.

"The way we are looking at this is Step 4 involves the removing of the remaining social restrictions like the rule of six and some of the business closures which are still there.

"And separately we have a piece of work on what the social distancing rules should be after that, whether we should have certification."

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