Boris Johnson has announced that England’s coronavirus lockdown will ease next week despite concerns about the Indian COVID-19 variant.
The prime minister confirmed on Monday that people will be able to hug loved ones, eat and drink inside pubs and restaurants and go on holiday from next week.
The move to the next stage of lockdown on 17 May came as zero COVID-19 deaths were recorded in England in the latest 24-hour period.
But there is growing concern about the spread of the Indian variant in the UK, with one expert warning it is “not looking good at all”.
The variant, known as B1.617.2, first detected in India, has increased sharply in the UK in the past two weeks, particularly in London and the North West.
Dr Christina Pagel, director of the Clinical Operation Research Unit at University College London, warned on Monday that recent data shows transmission of the India variant is “incredibly concerning”.
She tweeted: "It's not looking good at all. Ignoring problems when they're "small" has been one of the most damaging things this whole pandemic.”
She cited research by the Sanger Institute, which showed the Indian variant went from 1% to 11% of coronavirus cases in England in the two weeks up to 1 May.
Up to 5 May, 520 confirmed or probable cases of the Indian strain had been identified in the UK, an increase of 318 in a week.
England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said on Monday the Indian variant “has gone up very sharply”, and warned it was possibly more transmissible than the Kent variant which swept across the UK in the winter.
However, he added: “At this point in time our view is that it is less likely to be able to escape vaccination than some of the other variants.”
The WHO said preliminary studies show it spreads more easily than other variants and is in more than 30 countries.
Johnson announced the easing of England’s lockdown in a Downing Street press conference on Monday.
“This unlocking amounts to a very considerable step on the road map to normality and I am confident that we will be able to go further,” he said.
As part of the 17 May changes, people will be given the choice whether to remain two metres from family or friends, meaning they can once again hug and shake hands.
“This doesn’t mean that we can suddenly throw caution to the winds. We all know that close contacts such as hugging is a direct way of transmitting this disease,” said Johnson.
“So I urge you to think about the vulnerability of your loved ones.”
Watch: Indoor pints and hugs from next week