Returning school pupils are being asked to play their part in keeping coronavirus rates under control as ministers consider whether to delay lifting all restrictions amid rising cases.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who signalled he was in favour of vaccinating 12-15-year-olds to prevent school outbreaks, told pupils returning to classrooms this week after the half-term break that the “most important thing” they could do was get tested to ensure they are not asymptomatically carrying the virus.
It comes as the UK Government faces a “difficult” choice this week on whether to relax all Covid measures on June 21 in England, with a decision due in the next seven days.
Mr Hancock said ministers are “absolutely open” to delaying unlocking if the Indian variant starts to fuel hospital admissions.
He also refused to rule-out social distancing and guidance on wearing face coverings staying in place beyond the target date.
The comments come as coronavirus cases have continued to increase in the UK amid reports the Prime Minister is considering pushing so-called freedom day back by at least two weeks in order to allow more people to be fully vaccinated against the Indian strain.
Pressed on BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show whether June 21’s unlocking could be postponed, the Health Secretary said: “We are absolutely open to doing that if that’s what needs to happen.”
The Cabinet minister revealed that the Indian variant, which has become dominant in the UK, looks to be 40% more transmissible than the Kent strain.
Fears over new variants being imported into the country were behind the Government’s decision to switch holiday destination Portugal from the green list to the amber list suddenly last week, with Britons continuing to scramble for flights home before Tuesday’s 4am requirement to quarantine for 10 days comes into force.
The race to guard the population against the Indian mutation, which is also known as the Delta variant, will continue at pace this week with those aged under 30 to be invited to book their vaccine jabs.
Over the weekend, there were queues of young people at vaccination centres which have already opened their supply up to all people aged over 18.
Daily reported Covid-19 cases over the weekend remained above the 5,000 mark, with a further 5,341 lab-confirmed cases recorded on Sunday, while the Government said a further four people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of 9am that day.
NHS workers have expressed concern over the prospect of facing another wave of Covid patients if further easements are allowed this month, with some describing the health service as still “on its knees” and at higher capacity than usual.
Dr Megan Smith, who is also legal and policy officer for campaign group EveryDoctor, told PA news agency: “Everyone in the NHS at the moment is kind of terrified.
“In my view, there should be a look at whether there needs to be backtracking and have more restrictions in place.”
But the Health Secretary said vaccines were “working” and that “very few” people who had been fully-vaccinated were ending up in hospital.
“Critically, those who are double vaccinated also appear to be – even if they’re in hospital – less seriously ill,” he told Marr.
“So the vaccine is working and it is our way through it, but the new variant, because it’s more transmissible, is obviously making that calculation harder and we’ll look at the data for another week and then make a judgement.”
Mr Hancock said he expected “around three fifths” of all adults to have been double-jabbed by June 21, with 52% currently fully inoculated.