Measures to try to halt the rise of the variant of coronavirus first identified in India will cover 10% of England’s population, as Matt Hancock said there was a “challenging decision” to be made over the further lifting of Covid restrictions later this month.
The Health Secretary announced on Tuesday that a “strengthened package of support” will be provided for Greater Manchester and Lancashire, similar to that seen in Bolton, where case numbers remain high.
It means 5.7 million people are now under what mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham stressed was “not a lockdown” but “advice”.
The help on offer includes military support with testing and supervised in-school testing, and greater communication with disadvantaged groups will be available.
Local directors of public health will also be able to reintroduce face coverings in communal areas in schools if they want to.
But Mr Burnham called on the Government to go further, and urged ministers to release vaccine supplies earlier than planned.
Speaking at a press conference, he said: “Obviously what we’re seeing here is a localised approach to messaging, more localised support on testing and on tracing and isolation. We are also saying that also should apply to vaccination.
“We are not asking for any more vaccine here than our fair share, what we are asking for is the bringing forward of Greater Manchester’s supplies, so that we can run a surge vaccination programme over the next three weeks.”
As part of Government recommendations, people in areas affected by a rise in the variant first identified in India, are being urged to meet outside rather than inside where possible, keep up social distancing and minimise travel in and out of affected regions.
The areas listed have been expanded and include Greater Manchester (Bolton, Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford, Wigan) and Lancashire (Burnley, Chorley, Fylde, Hyndburn, Lancaster, Pendle, Preston, Ribble Valley, Rossendale, South Ribble, West Lancashire, Wyre).
Earlier Mr Hancock said: “We know that this approach can work, we’ve seen it work in south London and in Bolton in stopping a rise in the number of cases.
“This is the next stage of tackling the pandemic in Manchester and Lancashire and of course it’s vital that people in these areas, as everywhere else, come forward and get the jab as soon as they are eligible, because that is our way out of this pandemic together.”
But Mr Burnham said it was “very important to keep a sense of proportion”.
He said: “This is guidance, it is advice to the public. It is not a lockdown. It is not a ban… this is not about telling people to cancel their plans, it is about asking them to be careful in setting any new ones, to minimise non-essential travel.”
It comes after former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said any delay to England’s road map for easing lockdown would only be for a couple of weeks, owing to the success of the vaccination programme.
Mr Hunt, who chairs the Health and Social Care Committee, said he was “feeling quite optimistic that we are going to see the restrictions lifted” as “being double-jabbed” works against the Indian variant.
He told Times Radio: “If freedom day ends up being put back a couple of weeks so we can get more people double-jabbed, I think it will only be a temporary setback.”
But a more downbeat Environment Secretary, George Eustice, suggested people should be taking their summer holidays in the UK.
He told Sky News he would be holidaying in Cornwall this year, adding: “Our advice has been don’t travel unless it’s absolutely necessary.
“Obviously we had hoped, with these three categories that we had, we had hoped that situation would be improving in other parts of the world, that we’d be able to progressively add other countries to the green list.
“Sadly, that’s not the situation. We do have this new variant of concern first identified in India that is now cropping up in other countries, and we’ve just got to take a very cautious approach.”
He added: “I will be staying at home, I have no intention of travelling or going on a holiday abroad this summer.”
Asked about Mr Eustice’s suggestions, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the Environment Secretary had been speaking about his own plans.
And asked whether Boris Johnson will be heading abroad amid debate over travel restrictions, the spokesman said: “We wouldn’t speculate on the PM’s plans and will set out any details in the normal manner.”
Asked whether this meant a trip abroad had not been ruled out, he repeated that he would not speculate and added: “He is very focused this week on the G7 and the continued response to the Covid pandemic.”
Reports have suggested the final step in the Government’s road map could be delayed by two weeks, with The Times saying ministers were given a “downbeat” briefing on the latest data on Monday by chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.
But Steve Baker, deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of MPs, said vulnerable groups should now have all been offered a second dose of the vaccine.
He said: “If this brilliant milestone isn’t enough to convince ministers that we need to lift all remaining restrictions, especially social distancing requirements, on June 21, nothing will ever get us out of this.
“Not only is this the last chance for all those industries that make life worth living, like hospitality, live entertainment and tourism, it’s time for us to reconnect with family and friends and to regain our mental health.”
On Monday, Mr Hancock told the Commons that out of 12,383 cases of the Indian variant, 464 people went on to seek emergency care and 126 were admitted to hospital.
Of these, 83 people were unvaccinated, 28 had one dose of vaccine and just three had had both doses.