Local lockdowns could be imposed in areas worst hit by Indian variant, Cabinet minister warns

Watch: Local lockdowns not ruled out

The government has warned that the reintroduction of "local lockdowns" remains on the table and could be used to counter the threat posed by the Indian variant of coronavirus.

Ministers are anxious about the spread of the variant of concern and have ruled nothing out to tackle a sharp rise in cases in some parts of the country.

On Monday, England, Wales and many of areas of Scotland saw a relaxation of restrictions.

The prospect of further easing of rules in England on 21 June has been thrown into jeopardy by the emergence of the Indian variant, with the prime minister warning on Friday that the variant could cause "serious disruption" to the roadmap.

However Boris Johnson was far more buoyant about the country's outlook on Monday, telling reporters: “I don’t see anything conclusive at the moment to say that we need to deviate from the road map”.

On Monday, Matt Hancock announced that more than 2,300 cases of the variant had been detected in the UK – up from 1,300 in just four days.

And on Tuesday, Cabinet minister George Eustice said “intensive surveillance” was being used in areas with high case rates, but confirmed the return of local restrictions remained a possibility.

BOLTON, ENGLAND - MAY 17: A man is seen playing a harmonica while enjoying a pint in The Greyhound Pub as indoor hospitality reopens on May 17, 2021 in Bolton, England. UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said during a TV interview yesterday that a the government will consider a local lockdown in Bolton
The Greyhound Pub in Bolton as indoor hospitality reopened on 17 May. (Getty Images)
Members of the public queue to receive a Covid-19 vaccine at a temporary vaccination centre at the Essa academy in Bolton, northwest England on May 17, 2021. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
People queue to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at a temporary vaccination centre in Bolton amid a concerning rise in cases.(AFP via Getty Images)

“If we do have a deterioration in some of these areas then of course we can’t rule out that we would put in place certain local lockdowns,” he said. “At the moment we are doing a lot of intensive surveillance in those areas, with surge testing to identify it and deal with it.”

The environment secretary added that ministers still wanted the planned lifting of restrictions in England on 21 June to go ahead but “we can never rule out that there may have to be a delay”.

Officials fear the variant, one of three first found in India, is at least as transmissible as the so-called Kent variant identified in south-east England last year, which fuelled Britain's second wave of infections.

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In a Commons statement on Monday, Hancock said there were now 2,323 confirmed cases of the Indian variant in the UK, of which 483 were in Bolton and in Blackburn with Darwen.

He said the majority of people admitted to hospital in Bolton, which has seen the biggest outbreak of B1.617.2 variant, had been eligible for the jab but had not taken it up.

A rapid response team had been “surged” into the area to try to halt the spread of the variant. It included the deployment of more than 50 additional vaccinators and the opening of two new vaccination centres and six testing centres.

Watch: Hancock urges people to get the jab as Indian variant surges in Bolton and Blackburn

'One-trick pony'

According to The Times, plans drawn up by ministers closely resemble the Tier 4 restrictions used before. This would include people being told to stay at home. Non-essential shops and hospitality would also potentially be closed, although there would be financial support for those forced to do so.

The reimposition of local lockdowns does not have universal support with some calling for additional, proactive measures to be used to counter the spread before any shutdown is needed.

Professor Gabriel Scally, a member of Independent Sage and a leading public health expert said the solution was to “throw the kitchen sink at this” in places like Bolton and Blackburn to reduce infection.

Vaccinating younger age groups, thorough contact tracing and support for people to self-isolate was needed. “We also need to stop the importation of it and that means better border controls, a proper quarantine system," he added.

He said local directors of public health had not been “given the power” to do their jobs and should be empowered to make decisions, including vaccinating younger age groups.

Staff hand out self test kits at a Coronavirus testing centre at the Last Drop Village Hotel in Bolton.
Staff hand out self test kits at a coronavirus testing centre at the Last Drop Village Hotel in Bolton. (PA)

He added: "I think certainly local restrictions to get it under control, but hopefully we will be doing much more than just putting on restrictions.

“Sometimes it seems we’re like a one-trick pony, the only thing we know is shutting things down, and that’s bad for people’s health, it’s bad for the economy, and it’s a bad way to tackle an infectious disease.

After England's initial coronavirus lockdown, Johnson sought a regional approach to restrictions, which ultimately failed, and two further national lockdowns followed.

He wants a nationwide approach to the easing of restrictions this time, and has reiterated that he hoped restrictions would end across the whole nation in June.

"At the moment I can see nothing that dissuades me from thinking we'll be able to go ahead on Monday and June 21 everywhere," he said last week.