The chances that England will be able to go ahead with lifting the coronavirus lockdown as planned on 21 June are more than 50%, a leading scientist has said.
Professor Graham Medley, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), predicted the roadmap will not be delayed by the spread of the Indian COVID variant.
Cases of the variant have rocketed in parts of London and the North West, prompting Boris Johnson to warn that the outbreak "could pose a serious disruption to our progress and could make it more difficult to move to ‘Step 4’ in June".
A total of 1,313 cases of the Indian variant of concern have been recorded in the UK as of 20 May, up from 520 the previous week.
On Monday, England entered the latest phase of its lockdown easing, with pubs and restaurants allowed to serve customers inside and groups of six people or two households allowed to meet indoors.
Watch: Pubs do steady trade as doors reopen for indoor drinking
The prime minister said last week that the spread of variant could derail plans for all legal limits on social contact to be removed and for nightclubs to reopen, as laid out in the government's roadmap.
The India variant is feared to be as much as 50% more transmissible than the Kent variant. Early data suggests that existing vaccines are effective against it.
Prof Medley told LBC radio’s Nick Ferrari on Monday: “I think it’s better than 50% that we’ll go through this next phase without having to close things again rapidly."
Prof Medley said he believes “there’s really one other wave” of infection to come in the UK, but hopefully “vaccines will hold back the virus and prevent people going to hospital”.
He said there would be another wave “at some point during the summer, maybe late into September or October, depending on how much people mix”.
He added: “There has always been a risk that if we have another wave of infection between now and the end of the vaccination programme that we will end up with large numbers of people in hospital.
“This new variant does seem to be more transmissible, and so it’s just increased that risk a bit.”
Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said he thinks it “very likely” that all COVID-19 restrictions will be scrapped as planned on 21 June, despite the spread of the Indian variant.
He told Sky News on Monday: “If we act in a reasonable way, there is no reason to suppose that we can’t reopen the economy entirely on 21 June.
“I’ve said the vaccines are working against the Indian variant, I think we’ve got to look at the numbers so we’ve got some flexibility but there is nothing I have seen and nothing the prime minister has seen up to now that suggests we are going to delay that 21 June date.”
Professor Adam Finn, from the government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said the 21 June plan may not go ahead as envisioned.
“That’s been the story all the way through, that things don’t always turn out the way you expect,” he told Sky News.
“You lay down plans and then something changes, and I think we’re still in a place where that is perfectly likely to happen.
“I really hope that these current concerns around this variant evaporate, that everything goes to plan, but I think we just have to accept the possibility that we’re in for another big wave and that we will have to change what we’re doing.
"That’s not good news for people in businesses I know, but it’s the reality. We’re faced with real uncertainty here.”
The spread of the Indian COVID-19 variant has led Johnson to call for a “heavy dose of caution” as restrictions ease, while the British Medical Association (BMA) said it was a “real worry” that indoor socialising was returning.
On Sunday, health secretary Matt Hancock did not rule out the possibility of imposing local lockdowns in areas such as Bolton to tackle the Indian variant, which he warned could “spread like wildfire”.
He said there are more than 1,300 cases of the Indian variant of concern, which is “relatively widespread in small numbers” and is becoming “the dominant strain” in Bolton and Blackburn.
Hancock said “new very early data” from Oxford University showed that existing vaccines work against the Indian variant.
Watch: Bolton residents queue for vaccines as Indian variant spreads