The government has insisted it continues to be “driven by the data”, following reports that the planned easing of lockdown next month could be delayed.
Sage scientists are holding a meeting today to assess the threat of the Indian variant, amid upcoming data that is expected to show that UK cases linked to the variant have tripled over the past week.
A member of Sage told The i that the final step of lockdown easing on 21 June could be delayed as a result of the figures.
However, foreign office minister James Cleverly reiterated this morning that the government makes decisions based on the data.
He told Sky News: “Scientists on Sage will make their assessments, they will report that to government, and we will make decisions based on the data and the evidence that they provide.
“The prime minister, the health secretary, have always been clear that the easing of restrictions which allow us to get back to normality will be done at a pace and in a way which is safe.
“We will always be driven by the data.”
On Wednesday, education secretary George Eustice said that the government had not ruled out introducing increased local restrictions in Covid hotspots across the UK.
The Indian variant of coronavirus has been blamed for an increase in cases in England.
According to Public Health England (PHE) documents seen by The Guardian, 48 clusters of the variant have been identified – including ones linked to secondary schools and religious gatherings.
The variant is also thought to be behind a big increase in positive cases in Bolton, where the town's rate of infection is 133.5 per 100,000 people – up from 70.2 a week earlier.
But the spread of the Indian variant should be viewed as a country-wide problem, an expert has warned.
Professor James Naismith, from the University of Oxford, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday, that the variant may spread “way beyond” the local areas where it has been detected.
He said: “It will get everywhere. We keep learning this lesson, but we know that this will be the case.”
Naismith said he did not believe local restrictions would work to contain the variant.
He added: “When we tried locally having different restrictions in different regions that didn’t really make any difference. So I don’t think thinking about a localised strategy for containment will really work.”
However, professor Steven Riley, from Imperial College London, told Times Radio that while there was a need to keep an eye on variants, the UK was currently in a good place.
He added: “The top-line government policy is driven by protecting the NHS, so even if infection starts to go up, we then need to assess whether that’s bringing a lot of new cases into hospitals, and there’s certainly no sign of that at the moment.”
The next stage of lockdown easing – that will see a return of indoor hospitality and an increase on social mixing – is set to go ahead as planned on 17 May.