The Indian (Delta) variant of COVID-19 is more transmissible than the Kent (Alpha) strain, making decisions behind the unlocking of restrictions “more difficult”, Matt Hancock has told Sky News.
The health secretary said the new variant is 40% more transmissible, leaving the easing of lockdown on 21 June in the balance.
Speaking on the Trevor Phillips On Sunday show, Mr Hancock said: “That figure is the latest advice that I have. That means that it is more difficult to manage this virus with the new Delta variant, but crucially we believe that with two doses of the vaccine you get the same protection as the old variant.”
The health secretary also said vaccines would be opened up to under-30s in the next few days.
“This week we will be opening up vaccines to the under-30s and so we are getting a step closer to the point when we’ve been able to offer the vaccine to all adults in this country,” he said.
Mr Hancock also said vaccinating children over the age of 12 would have its ‘upsides’ for education.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) on Friday approved the use of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for 12 to 15-year-olds.
“I’m delighted the regulator, having looked very carefully at the data, has come forward and said that the jab is safe and effective for those who are over the age of 12.
“We’re taking advice currently from the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisation (JCVI), the experts in this, on the right approach to putting this into practise,” Mr Hancock said.
“I want to protect education as much as anybody does, and so making sure that we don’t have those whole bubbles having to go home, especially as we saw over the autumn for instance, that has upsides for education,” he added.
Mr Hancock said critical to re-openng on 21 June is whether the four tests set by the government have been met.
He said the link between cases and hospitalisations has been “severed but not broken”.
Mr Hancock went on: “Everybody must go and get their second jab though because the first isn’t as effective on its own.
“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.”
The government’s third test is to check that infection rates are not causing a surge in people going to hospital and putting the NHS under unsustainable pressure.
Shadow education secretary Kate Green told Trevor Phillips on Sunday the decision on whether or not to ease restrictions on June 21 needs to be “transparently taken” and “robust”.
“It’s a very difficult, a very finely balanced decision for the government and it’s absolutely right that it’s taken on the basis of all the available data,” she said.
The president of the Academy of Medical Sciences Dame Anne Johnson said next week will be “absolutely critical” in looking at data on infections.