Watch: George Eustice refuses to rule out increased restrictions in COVID hotspots
With the next round of lockdown easing set for Monday in England, a minister has warned that restrictions could be increased in areas with a surge in COVID cases.
Indoor mixing and increased social gatherings will be permitted from 17 May following weeks of declining coronavirus cases and deaths.
But environment secretary George Eustice refused to rule out a return of some restrictions in future COVID hotspots.
He told Sky News on Wednesday: "We can't rule anything out. But our plan that's been set out by the prime minister, the reason we're being incredibly cautious about exiting lockdown, is we want this to be the last.
"We want to try and avoid having to get into a tiered system and regionalisation. We tried that last autumn, we know that in the end we had to go for a full lockdown."
It comes after 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.
Eustice said the government is monitoring hotspot areas closely, with lateral testing being used to identify potential areas of concern.
But a council leader has urged it to consider increasing the focus of the vaccine programme in areas seeing a surge in coronavirus infections.
Barnsley Council leader Sir Stephen Houghton told Sky News: "We want the government to look at if the rollout can be accelerated.
"Maybe think about where we can be more effective with it.
"We think we can start to bring the numbers down by getting people vaccinated quicker.
"It is getting to those younger age groups, which we need to as quickly as possible now because that is where we are seeing the infections rise."
Barnsley is among the areas where coronavirus cases have risen sharply recently.
Houghton said the council was looking at its messaging for next week, when the England lockdown is further eased.
"We want people to realise the disease is still out there, it is not over, we still have to be careful," he said.
Asked if the council would accept tougher restrictions to bring cases down, he replied: "We have got to do all we can to tackle the disease... the government has said that is unlikely, I think what the government is worried about is new variants."
Recent data has shown that while daily deaths and hospital admissions due to COVID are at their lowest since last summer, there are pockets where cases have risen sharply.
Data shows that although the average infection rate in the UK has fallen by 15% to 40.1 per 100,000 people for the two-week period ending 4 May, there have been sharp rises in some areas.
There are 28 local authority areas in England, 4 in Northern Ireland and 2 in Scotland that have case rates twice the national average.
Watch: How England will leave lockdown