Covid hotspots mean local restrictions cannot be ruled out, says minister

·3 min read
<p>Cabinet minister George Eustice</p> (Sky News)

Cabinet minister George Eustice

(Sky News)

Boris Johnson’s government will not rule out re-introducing tougher restrictions for coronavirus “hotspot” areas, a cabinet minister has said.

Despite the success of the vaccine roll-out in bringing down Covid-19 deaths and hospital admissions, there are pockets of the UK where cases are back on the rise.

Asked if the government would consider local curbs, George Eustice, the environment secretary, said: “We can’t rule anything out … the reason we’re being incredibly cautious about exiting lockdown, is we want this to be the last.

Mr Eustice also told Sky News: “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.”

The minister said certain parts of the country were being closely monitored, and lateral testing in workplaces and schools should allow the health authorities “to pick up these hotspots”.

Mr Eustice said it was not yet clear what was behind the local rises, saying he did not know “whether it is particular variants” or people becoming more relaxed about remaining restrictions.

The rising number of cases of the Covid variant first detected in India in the UK should make the government reconsider the relaxing of restrictions on 17 May, one leading expert has warned.

Prof Christina Pagel, a member of the Independent Sage group, said ministers should act now instead of waiting until things get “really bad before we realise we should have acted several weeks ago”.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said the Indian variant B.1.617 has now been detected in 44 countries – and the UK has reported the highest caseload outside of India.

There have been 1,392 cases of the Indian variant detected in the UK so far, according to the Covid-19 genomics UK consortium database.

The latest data shows a surge in Covid-19 cases in the Lancashire area of Hyndburn, which has England’s highest two-week case rate of 199.9 per 100,000 people.

The mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, said that Bolton – which has the second highest infection rate at 158.9 cases per 100,000 people – was now a “cause of concern”.

Mr Burnham said all over 16-year-olds should be given the Covid vaccine to try to stop the spread of the Indian variant in the area.

Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, Lancashire’s director of public health, said he expects there to be another surge in Covid cases after further lockdown restrictions are eased at the start of next week.

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme if opening up further could problems in areas with already high case rates, he said: “We are all expecting there will be another surge in the cases, but we also know that we have protected the most vulnerable.”

Dr Karunanithi there was still “real uncertainty in terms of the variants and how severe they are going to be”.

In Scotland, the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said the region of Moray is likely to stay under level 3 restrictions due to “widespread community transmission” of Covid in the north-east area.

With a decision due at the end of the week, it is “highly probable” Moray will remain under tighter rules, despite the rest of mainland Scotland easing into level 2 restrictions on 17 May.

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