Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi stressed the importance of being “really careful” in lifting coronavirus restrictions following reports there could be a four-week delay to the planned easing of all restrictions on June 21.
He urged against “squander(ing) those hard fought gains” made by the vaccination programme amid concerns over the rise of the Delta variant, which was first identified in India.
It comes as The Times reported ministers are considering a four-week delay to what some are calling “freedom day”, in order to give businesses certainty and allow more time for people to receive both vaccine doses.
Boris Johnson is due to make a decision shortly on whether England can go ahead with full reopening on June 21, with an announcement expected on Monday.
The Prime Minister is being urged to err on the side of caution and delay the next stage of his road map as new figures show case rates have increased in every region in England.
A total of 42,323 cases of the Delta variant have now been confirmed in the UK, up by 29,892 from last week, Public Health England said on Friday.
During a broadcast round on Friday morning, Mr Zahawi emphasised that the virus “hasn’t gone away” when asked about reports of a delay.
“There have been some really hard-won battles against this virus and we don’t want to squander those hard-fought gains that we have made through the vaccination programme,” he told Times Radio Breakfast.
“In saying that, the virus hasn’t gone away, the virus will continue to attempt to mutate, to escape, to try and survive, and I think it’s really important that we are really careful.”
Mr Zahawi said the Government was “on track” to meet a target of all over 50s being offered their second jab by June 21, as he appealed to those who had not had a first dose to come forward to be vaccinated.
“75% of the 12,500 people who were infected with the Delta variant, 75%, three quarters, hadn’t had a jab, so it’s really important,” he added.
Reports of a four-week delay to June 21 were welcomed by Jim McManus, vice-president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, who is warning that lifting restrictions risks cases and hospital admissions rising further.
The latest weekly surveillance report from Public Health England (PHE), published on Thursday, showed case rates had risen in nearly all age groups in England.
They have more than doubled among 20 to 29-year-olds, going from 54.0 per 100,000 people in the week ending May 30 to 121.0 in the seven days to June 6.
Mr McManus told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “If you get enough people infected, you will get a rise in hospitalisations.
“You will also get a significant rise in long Covid, which is something we want to avoid too.
“The second thing is that the more people infected, the more variants will develop, and the more risk we have that a variant will develop that evades the vaccine completely.
“So actually, investing a bit of time is really important to enable the vaccine programme to finish and do its job.”