A “strengthened package of support” will be provided for Greater Manchester and Lancashire to tackle a rise in the Delta variant of coronavirus, Matt Hancock has said.
The Health Secretary told the Commons the Government faces a “challenging decision” over whether to lift remaining lockdown restrictions across England on June 21.
He announced military support to help areas in the North West with testing, supervised in-school testing and greater communication with disadvantaged groups.
Local directors of public health will also be able to reintroduce face coverings in communal areas in schools if they want to.
As part of Government recommendations, people in areas affected by a rise in the Delta variant, first identified in India, are being urged to meet outside rather than inside where possible, keep up social distancing and minimise travel in and out of affected regions.
The areas listed have been expanded and include Greater Manchester (Bolton, Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford, Wigan) and Lancashire (Burnley, Chorley, Fylde, Hyndburn, Lancaster, Pendle, Preston, Ribble Valley, Rossendale, South Ribble, West Lancashire, Wyre).
Mr Hancock said: “I can tell the House that today, working with local authorities, we are providing a strengthened package of support based on what’s happening in Bolton to help Greater Manchester and Lancashire tackle the rise in the Delta variant that we are seeing there.
“This includes rapid response teams, putting in extra testing, military support and supervised in-school testing.
“I want to encourage everyone in Manchester and Lancashire to get the tests on offer.
“We know that this approach can work, we’ve seen it work in south London and in Bolton in stopping a rise in the number of cases.
“This is the next stage of tackling the pandemic in Manchester and Lancashire and of course it’s vital that people in these areas, as everywhere else, come forward and get the jab as soon as they are eligible because that is our way out of this pandemic together.”
It comes after former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said any delay to England’s road map for easing lockdown would only be for a couple of weeks owing to the success of the vaccination programme.
Mr Hunt, who chairs the Health and Social Care Committee, said he was “feeling quite optimistic that we are going to see the restrictions lifted” as “being double-jabbed” works against the Delta variant.
He told Times radio: “If Freedom Day ends up being put back a couple of weeks so we can get more people double-jabbed, I think it will only be a temporary setback.”
And he added: “I think we are on the way to getting back to normal.”
Mr Hunt also told Sky News: “I am quite optimistic that we will have Freedom Day before the summer break.
“And because we know that two jabs is effective against the Delta Indian variant, if it does get put back from June 21, my own hunch is that there’ll be a matter of weeks, rather than anything that will really interrupt people’s plans for the summer.”
He continued: “As far as the summer is concerned, I’m still an optimist. I have got a family holiday booked in Italy, but I also got it with those easyJet tickets that you can change the date at no extra cost. So, I’m fully prepared to do that if that’s what we have to do.”
It comes after a more downbeat Environment Secretary, George Eustice, suggested people should be taking their summer holidays in the UK.
He told Sky News he would be holidaying in Cornwall this year, adding: “Our advice has been: don’t travel unless it’s absolutely necessary.
“Obviously we had hoped, with these three categories that we had, we had hoped that situation would be improving in other parts of the world, that we’d be able to progressively add other countries to the green list.
“Sadly, that’s not the situation. We do have this new variant of concern first identified in India that is now cropping up in other countries, and we’ve just got to take a very cautious approach.”
He added: “I will be staying at home, I have no intention of travelling or going on a holiday abroad this summer.”
Asked whether Mr Eustice’s suggestions that people should holiday in the UK was Government advice, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the Environment Secretary had been speaking about his own plans.
He added: “He set out the advice as it is, there is a green list of destinations where it is possible to travel overseas, people may choose to do so if they wish, otherwise we would advise against travel to amber and red list countries.”
Asked whether Boris Johnson will be heading abroad amid debate over travel restrictions, the spokesman said: “We wouldn’t speculate on the PM’s plans and will set out any details in the normal manner.”
Asked whether this meant a trip abroad had not been ruled out, he repeated that he would not speculate and added: “He is very focused this week on the G7 and the continued response to the Covid pandemic.”
Reports have suggested the final step in the Government’s road map could be delayed by two weeks, with The Times saying ministers were given a “downbeat” briefing on the latest data on Monday by chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.
On Monday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the Commons that out of 12,383 cases of the Delta variant, 464 people went on to seek emergency care and 126 were admitted to hospital.
Of these, 83 people were unvaccinated, 28 had one dose of vaccine and just three had had both doses.
Meanwhile, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, Danny Altmann, told Times Radio on Tuesday that reopening too soon could cause wave after wave of the virus.
“I do feel nervous about it,” he said. “Because at the moment we’ve done terrifically well, but it is a job half-done.
“For the sake of our grand single reopening day, we might pay a price of percolating this virus for evermore through to wave after wave after wave, where our children or grandchildren curse us and say: ‘But why didn’t you just hang on and clear it and get the country to a better place?’”