By Becky Morton & Doug Faulkner-BBC News
https://www.bbc.com-image copyright Reuters
image caption The NHS is sending a mobile vaccine bus into parts of Bolton with high infections
Second vaccine doses could be brought forward and local restrictions introduced to help tackle the Indian variant in the worst-affected areas, the UK government has said.
Minister Nadhim Zahawi said steps could also include vaccinating younger people in multi-generational households.
Meanwhile, a top scientist has warned lifting restrictions on 21 June is in doubt because of the Indian variant.
Cases in the UK have more than doubled to 1,313, Public Health England said.
The figures released on Thursday have risen from 520 cases recorded by PHE up to 5 May.
However, Prof Paul Hunter, who sits on a number of Covid advisory committees for the World Health Organization, said current figures were around two weeks out of date and would now be higher.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the Indian variant was now in most regions of the UK, with the possible exception of Yorkshire and Humber and north-east England.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said there was “no firm evidence yet to show this variant has any greater impact on severity of disease or evades the vaccine”.
But it also said ministers “cannot rule out reimposing economic and social restrictions at a local or regional level if evidence suggests they are necessary to contain or suppress a variant which escapes the vaccine”.
It said ministers were also considering bringing forward second doses for people who are eligible in the worst-affected areas.
Prof Hunter said there was “possibly” a case for targeting vaccines in certain areas – but jabs took two to three weeks to work. This would mean diverting doses from other areas, where the Indian variant could also soon be spreading.
Mr Zahawi said pilots of vaccinating younger people in multi-generational households in Luton had been successful.
Asked whether local lockdowns were being considered, the vaccines minister said nothing was “off the table”, including further regional or national measures.
However, he said surge testing was the “most effective way” of dealing with variants.
Surge testing is already taking place in 15 areas across England. This is when increased testing and enhanced contact tracing is carried out in specific locations to try to prevent the spread of outbreaks.
Lockdown easing ‘in doubt’
On Thursday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there was no evidence to suggest England’s planned lockdown easing could not go ahead.
The next major easing of restrictions is due to take place on 17 May.
But Prof Hunter said step four of the roadmap out of lockdown, which is due on 21 June and would see all legal limits on social contact lifted, “is in doubt”.
Currently he said the Indian variant was spreading in younger, unvaccinated people but if cases increased so would hospital admissions, putting pressure on the NHS.
Mr Zahawi said easing restrictions on 21 June depended on the government’s four tests being met – including that vaccines continue to be effective and the risks are not fundamentally changed by new variants.
Why could the Indian variant be a problem when the vaccination programme is doing so well?
The issue is that we are only part way through even though those most at risk have been prioritised.
There is still debate about how transmissible the new variant is.
But modelling by the University of Warwick has estimated that a 30%-40% more transmissible variant combined with relaxing restrictions in May and June could lead to more hospital admissions than in the first wave.
It would be a very different situation if we were in the autumn when overall levels of immunity would be making it harder for the virus to spread.
Instead, we are in the delicate phase where restrictions are being eased as the vaccine is taking over the burden of suppressing the virus.
One option being considered is closing the gap between the first and second doses.
This would give vulnerable people, who have already been offered their first jab, extra protection more quickly.
However, there could be a trade-off as studies suggest the current 12-week gap between doses leads to a better immune response than the originally planned three-week gap.
Experts believe the Indian variant – officially called B.1.617.2 – has mutations that may make it more transmissible, but it is not yet known if it causes more severe disease or if it might make current vaccines less effective.
PHE said mobile testing units had been set up in Bolton, and door-to-door PCR testing had been offered to 22,000 residents. A PCR test is the most accurate way to check for Covid.
More doses have been delivered to the town, which has also set up a vaccine bus to increase uptake among those who are eligible.
Extra clinics will open in Blackburn and Darwen in Lancashire from next week to offer the vaccine to those who are eligible under national guidelines.