Despite the success of the vaccine rollout, the surge in cases of the double mutant strain has cast doubt on the fourth and final stage of easing restrictions.
An NHS chief said the PM will have a ‘difficult decision to make’ as he warned hospital bosses are concerned about the transmissibility of the B1617.2 variant and the large number of people who are yet to get the vaccine.
Ministers are currently considering plans to keep some measures in place, such as the continued use of face masks and to tell the public to keep working from home if they can.
One adviser involved in assessing the official Covid data told The Times: ‘If I was to call it now, I’d say step four is highly likely to be delayed.’
The final stage in the government’s road map out of lockdown would see legal limits on social contact end along with the reopening of nightclubs in England.
From June 21, the limit on gatherings is also expected to be lifted, meaning any number of people will be able to attend weddings, funerals and parties.
NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson warned that although hospitals were not expecting to be overwhelmed by a surge of Covid-19 cases, they were already stretched by going ‘full pelt’ on dealing with the backlog.
However, he said it was ‘very significant and important’ that the data suggests the success of the vaccine programme has led to much lower levels of hospital admissions, serious illness and death than earlier in the pandemic.
He said: ‘Significant numbers of Covid-19 hospital inpatients will adversely impact care backlog recovery.
‘(The) current degree of pressure on hospitals is worrying especially since we saw clear summer demand surges in the two years before Covid-19.
‘But if, as evidence above suggests, success of (the) vaccination campaign means much lower levels of hospitalisation, serious illness and mortality, even with (the) new variant, that is very significant and important.
‘This means there is a difficult decision to make for June 21.’
Professor Sharon Peacock of Cambridge University, who runs the UK variant monitoring programme, echoed his concerns and said it is too early to predict the full impact of the variant.
She said: ‘It’s these periods of uncertainty, when we don’t quite know how serious it will be, which we find really difficult to deal with.
‘It could be that it’s going to level out and we’ll get used to a new variant causing infection, but actually through vaccination, we manage to hold it at bay. We just don’t know.’
Bolton, Blackburn and London have been identified as the areas with the highest concentration of cases of the Indian Covid variant.
However, cases have dropped by more than 10% in Bolton in under a week thanks to a ramped-up vaccination programme and mass testing.
On May 20, 451 cases per 100,000 residents were recorded – dropping to 403 on May 24.
This means neighbouring Blackburn with Darwen has now overtaken the town as having the highest rate of new cases with 584 confirmed cases in the seven days to May 26.
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