Boris Johnson has said the Government is “ruling nothing out” in tackling the Indian variant of concern as new figures show cases have more than doubled in a week.
Data from Public Health England (PHE) shows a rise in cases from 520 to 1,313 this week in the UK, with the agency saying cases were “rising in the community” and it was assessing the impact and severity of the variant.
Dr Susan Hopkins, Covid-19 strategic response director at PHE, said: “We need to act collectively and responsibly to ensure that variants do not impact on the progress we have all made to drive down levels of Covid-19 and the increased freedom that brings.”
In Bolton, which has one of the highest case rates of the variant in the country, mobile testing units have been deployed and door-to-door PCR Covid testing has been offered to 22,000 residents.
A vaccine bus has been set up to increase uptake among those who are eligible.
Meanwhile surge testing has been deployed in Sefton, Merseyside, after cases of the Indian variant were confirmed in the Formby area, with anyone over 16 who lives, works or studies in the area urged to take a PCR test.
Measures have also been brought in elsewhere, including in parts of London.
Speaking at a primary school in Ferryhill, County Durham, earlier, the Prime Minister said: “It is a variant of concern, we are anxious about it.
“At the moment there is a very wide range of scientific opinion about what could happen.
“We want to make sure we take all the prudential, cautious steps now that we could take, so there are meetings going on today to consider exactly what we need to do.
“There is a range of things we could do, we are ruling nothing out.”
Asked if local lockdowns were possible, Mr Johnson said: “There are a range of things we could do, we want to make sure we grip it.
“Obviously there’s surge testing, there’s surge tracing.
“If we have to do other things, then of course the public would want us to rule nothing out.
“We have always been clear we would be led by the data.
“At the moment, I can see nothing that dissuades me from thinking we will be able to go ahead on Monday and indeed on June 21 everywhere, but there may be things we have to do locally and we will not hesitate to do them if that is the advice we get.”
PHE said cases of the variant and any clusters are being “rapidly investigated” by local PHE teams, councils and NHS Test and Trace to identify the contacts of those who test positive.
People are being encouraged to go for testing and to self-isolate if needed.
PHE said there were “many small dispersed clusters” in London and it was working with borough councils on a local approach, which had already been effective at driving down variants.
It added: “Across the North West, significant work is under way with local councils and partners in specific areas where variant cases have been identified.”
Dr Hopkins urged people to follow local public health advice and said: “Cases of this variant are rising in the community and we are continuously monitoring its spread and severity to ensure we take rapid public health action.”
She added: “Testing and isolating when required not only limits spread, it helps us to better understand how the variant behaves in the community which is vital to taking effective and proportionate action moving forward.
“If you’re asked to take a test please do. The way to limit the spread of all variants is the same.
“Keep your distance, wash your hands regularly and thoroughly, cover your nose and mouth when inside, keep buildings well ventilated and meet people from other households outside.”
PHE is asking the public to continue to working from home and take up the offer of twice-weekly lateral flow tests.
Layla Moran MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, said: “The latest figures are deeply concerning and suggest the government failed to act swiftly enough to prevent the Indian variant being imported into the UK.
“Ministers only added India to the red list several weeks after this mutation was identified as a variant of concern, by which time it was too late.
“Our cross-party report has called for countries to be added to the ‘red list’ as soon as variants of concern are identified, and for quarantine rules to then come into force with immediate effect.
“The government must rethink its flawed approach to international travel and focus on preventing the importation of variants, which scientists agree pose the biggest risk to our hard-won progress against Covid-19.”
A spokeswoman for Blackburn with Darwen Council initially said extra vaccine doses had been secured so all people aged over 18 there could be offered the jab from next week amid rising cases.
But in a statement released later on Thursday, the council said the vaccine would not be widely available to over-18s, but only available “in line with Government guidance”.
Earlier, asked if masks and social distancing would be scrapped next month, Mr Johnson said more announcements would be made before the end of this month.
He added: “I think we have to wait a little bit longer to see how the data is looking but I am cautiously optimistic about that and provided this Indian variant doesn’t take off in the way some people fear, I think certainly things could get back much, much closer to normality.”
Downing Street also said officials would not “rule anything out” when asked if the Government was considering surge vaccinations to accompany surge testing in areas with spikes of new variants.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told a Westminster briefing: “We want to consider all options.”
Earlier, Professor Steven Riley, from Imperial College London, said whether the road map for England continued on its planned trajectory was “a Government decision” but suggested the UK was currently in a good place.