Matt Hancock has voiced his frustration that some people are still not getting the coronavirus vaccine, amid fears of the spread of the new Indian variant.
The Health Secretary said the majority of people admitted to hospital in Bolton, which has seen the biggest outbreak of B1.617.2 variant, had been eligible for the jab but had not taken it up.
In a Commons statement, he said vaccinations and testing had been “surged” across the town as he announced the jab would be offered to 36 and 37-year-olds from this week.
Mr Hancock said there were now 2,323 confirmed cases of the Indian variant in the UK, of which 483 were in Bolton and in Blackburn with Darwen.
Cases there had doubled in the past week, with 19 people in Bolton in hospital with the variant and eight in Blackburn, and that it was now the dominant strain in the area.
“The majority have not been vaccinated and, of them, most of them could have been vaccinated, which is frustrating to see, but is also a message to everyone,” Mr Hancock told MPs.
“It just reinforces the message that people should come forward and get vaccinated because that is the best way to protect everybody.”
Rate of vaccination in Bolton quadruples
In response, Mr Hancock said a rapid response team had been “surged” into the area to try to halt the spread of the variant, amid concerns it is more transmissible than the current dominant Kent strain.
It included the deployment of more than 50 additional vaccinators and the opening of two new vaccination centres and six testing centres.
Over the weekend, the rate of vaccination in Bolton quadrupled, with 6,200 people getting the jab.
“This is the biggest surge of resources into any specific local area we have seen in the pandemic so far,” Mr Hancock said.
He said that the figures for those in hospital suggested that the new variant had not so far penetrated the older, vaccinated population.
He stressed, however, that the variant was not confined to Bolton and Blackburn, with 86 local authorities now reporting five or more confirmed cases.
The next biggest area of concern was Bedford, where testing was also now being surged, he said.
His warning came after Boris Johnson cautioned last week that the spread of the Indian variant could jeopardise plans for the final lifting of lockdown in England.
Downing Street said updates on plans for domestic coronavirus “passports”, announcements on easing social distancing requirements and further guidance on weddings, due later this month, could now be delayed.
“We need time to assess the latest data on this variant first identified in India so I’m not going to give a set time for doing that,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman told reporters on Monday.
It came as restrictions were eased across much of the UK with the return of indoor socialising and the reopening of pubs and restaurants for indoor dining and drinking.
Cautiously enjoy new freedoms
Ministers have however urged people to exercise caution in enjoying their new freedoms amid fears among some scientists about a possible resurgence of the disease.
Mr Hancock said the easing had been possible as there were now fewer than 1,000 people in hospital in the UK with coronavirus, while the average number of daily deaths had fallen to just nine.
He added: “While we can take this step today we must be humble in the face of this virus.
“In a pandemic we must look not just where we are today but where the evidence shows where we may be weeks and months down the track.”
For Labour, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said they were now paying the price for the Government’s delay in adding India to the “red list” countries from which returning travellers have to quarantine in a government-supervised hotel.
“Does he Mr Hancock) accept we could have avoided this?” he asked.
“Our borders have been about as secure as a sieve. The delay in adding India to the red list surely now stands as a catastrophic mis-step.”
Meanwhile, an analysis by the PA news agency found the Covid-19 rates in the worst hotspots were being driven by a sharp rise in cases among younger age groups.
Bolton, Blackburn with Darwen, and Bedford all have case rates among younger people that are running at a much higher level than those for older age groups.
Mr Hancock however rejected calls for the vaccine to be given to younger age groups in areas where the Indian variant was causing concern.
“Our vaccination strategy for all parts of the UK, including the areas of surge vaccination, will stick by the clinical advice set out by the JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation),” he said.
“This clinically approved approach is the best way to save the most lives rather than jumping ahead with first doses for younger people.”