The number of cases of the Indian variant of Covid-19 has leapt by 1,000 in just four days, it was revealed, as the surge forced Boris Johnson to shelve a decision on scrapping social distancing rules.
The increase – from 1,313 to 2,323 confirmed cases since last Thursday, a rise of 77 per cent – came as Labour condemned a “catastrophic misstep” in failing to slam restrictions on travel from India in time last month.
Meanwhile, Downing Street dropped a deadline to reveal whether social distancing will end next month – in a clear hint that the planned ending of all remaining Covid rules is in huge jeopardy.
A week ago, Boris Johnson said he expected to scrap the “1m-plus rule” on 21 June – promising full details by the end of May – but his spokesman wriggled out of the commitment.
“We need time to assess the latest data on the variant first identified in India – I’m not going to give a set time for doing that,” he said, when asked about completing the review.
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In the Commons, Mr Hancock announced that 37-year-olds will be offered vaccines from Tuesday – and 36-year-olds a day later – and opened the door to offering people a choice of jab, if necessary to tackle “hesitancy”.
“If we can do more on the specifics of which vaccine, I’m very happy to look at that,” the health secretary told MPs, in a statement.
“As we reach further and further into those who need encouragement to come forward, so we are willing to look at more and more creative solutions to tackle people’s hesitancy.”
Mr Hancock announced that surge testing will be extended to Bedford after a rise in Indian variant cases there, saying: “There are now 86 local authorities where there are five or more confirmed cases.”
But he stressed that “the initial observational data from India that vaccines are effective against this variant” – provided people did come forward for their jabs.
“In Bolton, 19 people are now in hospital with coronavirus – the majority of whom are eligible for a vaccine but haven’t yet had a vaccine,” Mr Hancock said.
“This shows the new variant is not tending to penetrate into older, vaccinated groups and it underlines again the importance of getting the jab especially – but not only – amongst the vulnerable age groups.”
Across the UK, there are now fewer than 1,000 people in hospital with Covid and the average number of daily deaths stands at just nine.
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, went on the attack, telling Mr Hancock: “We could have avoided this.
“Our borders have been about as secure as a sieve. The delay in adding India to the ‘red list’, surely now stands as a catastrophic, misstep.”
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Mr Hancock insisted: “We put India on the red list before other countries like Germany and Canada, stopped flying from India. We have a strong policy of restrictions at the border.”
But he also came under fire over his weekend instruction to UK holidaymakers not to travel to “amber list” – as well as red list – countries.
The advice had previously been stated on a government website, but the health secretary’s warning still came as a shock to many would-be tourists.
Huw Merriman, the Conservative chairman of the Transport Committee, accused Mr Hancock of “effectively turning the amber list into the red list”, asking: “What is the point in me having my passport anymore?”