Ministers are racing to offer all over 50s the second dose of a coronavirus vaccine before the planned end of lockdown restrictions in England on 21 June.
The rush to fully vaccinate the most vulnerable groups comes amid fears the highly transmissible Indian Covid-19 variant could delay the easing of rules, as cases continue to rise in some parts of the UK.
‘We have to be cautious’
The UK government has said it will take a cautious approach in deciding whether it is safe to go ahead with the lockdown roadmap as scheduled, with hospitals already under pressure and health experts warning against “charging ahead”.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi has acknowledged the need for caution due to concerns about rising infection rates, with Blackburn with Darwen currently recording the highest rates in the UK.
A total of 584 Covid-19 cases were recorded in the unitary authority area in Lancashire in the seven days to 26 May, according to latest figures from Public Health England (PHE), which is the equivalent of 390.1 cases per 100,000 people.
The area has overtaken Bolton to have the highest rate of new Covid-19 cases in the UK, with the Greater Manchester town recording 386.7 cases per 100,000 people over the same period.
This is a fall from 452.8 in the week up to 21 May, suggesting the recent surge in cases, largely driven by the spread of the Indian variant, may now have peaked.
PHE statistics show that the majority of those who have been infected have not been vaccinated.
The government now hopes to offer a second dose to all over 50s by 21 June, when all legal limits on social contact are due to be lifted in England.
However, ministers are in a race with the new strain, with almost half of all new cases thought to be the Indian variant.
Mr Zahawi told Times Radio he “could do with more supply” of coronavirus vaccines to “be able to protect more people more rapidly”.
Could lockdown be delayed?
The continued spread of the Indian variant has caused doubts as to whether it will be safe to end all lockdown restrictions on 21 June, with ministers now considering keeping some measures in place.This may include the continued use of face masks and guidance on working from home.
The government will wait for the latest data on 14 June before deciding whether to proceed with the lifting of restrictions the following week.
Speaking on BBC1’s Andrew Marr show, Mr Zahawi said: “Are we still vaccinating at scale? Big tick. Are the vaccines working? Yes.
“But are infection rates too high for us to then not be able to proceed because there are too many people getting into hospital? I don’t know the answer to it.
“But we will know it on, hopefully on the 14th, a few more weeks.”
NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said hospital bosses were concerned about the transmissibility of the Indian variant and the large number of people who have still to receive doses of the vaccine.
He 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 of cases built up during the pandemic and urgent care needs.
Hospitals are operating under reduced capacity due to Covid-19 restrictions and increased numbers of coronavirus patients will add further pressures.
Mr Hopson said: “(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… 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.”