The majority of people in hospital with Covid in Bolton were eligible for the vaccine but have not had it, Matt Hancock has said, saying that health authorities would go “door-to-door” offering jabs.
His comments came as concern mounted over increased cases of the B.1.617.2 variant first detected in India, particularly in the north-west and parts of London, which could affect the future easing of lockdown restrictions.
There is a “high degree of confidence” that vaccines protect against the Indian variant of COVID-19 – but it can “spread like wildfire” among those who haven’t had a jab, Matt Hancock has told Sky News.Mr Hancock said it can “spread even faster” than the Kent variant, which drove the UK’s deadly second wave of infections this winter, with a total of just over 1,300 cases found in the country so far.
He said it was “becoming the dominant strain in some parts of the country” such as Bolton and Blackburn.In Bolton, where a number of people have ended up in hospitals with the Indian variant, the “vast majority” had been eligible for a COVID jab but had not yet had one, Mr Hancock said.
He likened the current situation facing the country to “a race between the vaccination programme and the virus”, with the Indian variant having “given the virus some extra legs in that race”.There have been concerns that the spread of the Indian variant in the UK could derail the government’s roadmap for easing lockdown restrictions.
But Mr Hancock said tomorrow’s planned easing to stage three of the roadmap – allowing indoor mixing between households – would still go ahead.
And a decision would be announced on 14 June as to whether the country would proceed to stage four a week later, when ministers aim to remove all legal limits on social contact.
“I suppose the number one lesson from this episode is that if you are eligible, you should come forward and get the jab,” Hancock told Times Radio.
“If you want to know why that’s important, the majority of people in hospital with coronavirus in Bolton this morning are eligible for the jab but haven’t had it yet – [that] is the strongest point of why it’s so important for everybody to come forward and get this jab.”
The health secretary also defended the government’s delay of almost three weeks before putting India on its travel red list, a move only made after the cancellation of Boris Johnson’s planned visit to Delhi.
Hancock said the decision not to red list India was “based on the evidence” when asked if it was linked to the prime minister’s desire to boost trade negotiations during his planned April visit, as cases soared in India.
The country was put on the red list, which requires hotel quarantine, for entering England 17 days after Pakistan and only after Johnson’s visit was cancelled.
“When we put Pakistan on the red list at the start of April that’s because the proportion of people testing positive coming in from Pakistan was three times higher than the proportion coming from India, and it was only after we put India on the red list that this variant went under investigation, and then earlier this month it became a variant of concern,” Hancock told Sky News.
He said it was “quite likely this will become the dominant variant” in the UK, because of its transmissibility. The Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations (JCVI) was said to be “cautiously optimistic” that vaccines would work against the India variant of Covid-19.
Government scientific advisers suggested that people should still avoid indoor socialising when rules are relaxed on Monday and Labour’s Yvette Cooper said the government should pause plans to allow international travel.
Hancock reiterated that places with high case numbers linked to the variant, such as Bolton and Blackburn, could see local lockdowns put in place but said that was not a step the government wanted to take.
“The approach we’re taking in Bolton and Blackburn is to absolutely pile in testing and vaccinations to try to get on top of this,” he said.
Hancock told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show that five people who had received a single jab of a Covid vaccine have been hospitalised with the variant in Bolton, and one person who had received both. He said he was not aware of any deaths among people who had been vaccinated.
Major new restrictions were due to be lifted on Monday, which will allow indoor socialising and overnight stays with other households for the first time, with advice against hugging also lifted.
Hancock said he would hug his own parents but stay outdoors. “Of course there are people who have been yearning to have some physical contact – you should do that carefully. If you’ve had both jabs more than two weeks ago, that’s much safer,” he said.
But Hancock stressed that the government was moving towards a “mantra” of personal responsibility. “We all have a personal responsibility, we all know now the sorts of things that are riskier but we’re able because the case numbers are so low to move away from some of the more restrictive interventions,” he said.