MATT Hancock has warned the link between Covid cases, hospitalisations and deaths has been "broken" but "not completely severed" by vaccines.
The Health Secretary said the Government "always expected Covid cases to rise" as lockdown restrictions eased – as daily UK infections surged 50 per cent in a week and deaths fell to 11 in the latest 24-hour period.
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He told reporters the data is being watched "very carefully" as Britain gears up for the full lifting of restrictions of June 21.
Mr Hancock said: "We always expected cases to rise as the country was opened up, the critical thing is the impact on the number of people who end up in hospital for any given number of cases.
"That link has been broken by the vaccine, but it hasn't been completely severed yet.
"That's one of the things that we're watching very carefully, and it's too early to say what the decision will be ahead of June 21, but we'll make sure people know in good time."
Asked whether data in relation to the Indian mutation, also known as the Delta variant, was "going in the wrong direction", the Cabinet minister said: "We publish all the information we have about the new variants, including the Delta variant, and we take this approach of full transparency.
"The data on the impact on hospitalisations are very early data, so we can't yet conclude with any confidence that there's an impact on your risk of hospitalisation.
"But of course, we publish the early data and we watch it very carefully."
It comes as:
- UK’s vaccine rollout to be stepped up in bid to save June 21 lockdown lift as ‘over 25’s to be offered jab next week’
- UK could be in the midst of THIRD WAVE, says Sturgeon
- Indian variant could be ‘100% more infectious than Kent strain’
- Covid R rate up AGAIN – and could be as high as 1.3 in hotspot
- Coronavirus cases rise 50% in a WEEK amid fears June 21 easing will be delayed
- France to welcome fully vaccinated Brits from June 9
- Brits dash to get home from Portugal to beat amber list quarantine
- ‘Nepal variant’ cases found in UK
Analysis by the PA news agency shows the majority of major hospital trusts in England are currently continuing to average no Covid-19 admissions despite rising case numbers.
However, a handful of trusts in virus hotspots are showing a small rise in numbers, as experts warn that the variant first identified in India, also known as the Delta variant, may lead to an increased risk of hospital admission.
The UK's vaccine rollout continues as Government data up to June 3 shows that of the 66,749,638 jabs given in the UK so far, 39,949,694 were first doses and 799,944 were second jabs.
It comes as ministers and officials work on contingency plans to push “Freedom Day” back by two weeks.
Social distancing and face masks could also stick around, as well as limits of football fans in stadiums.
A delay would likely plunge people's travel plans into even more chaos as Brits would almost certainly be told not to book foreign holidays.
Mr Hancock also said the UK had to be "tough" on international travel rules to protect the progress of lockdown easing following Portugal's controversial removal from the green list.
Ministers have blamed fears over importing the so-called Nepal variant – a mutation that some think could have properties helping it to beat vaccines – for the decision to demote Portugal to amber status.
It means people arriving in the UK from Portugal after 4am on Tuesday will need to self-isolate at home for 10 days – a change that has left holidaymakers scrambling for pricey flights home in a bid to beat the quarantine deadline.
A seat on a Ryanair flight from Lisbon to Manchester on Monday costs £339, whereas travel on the same route is available for just £75 on Wednesday.
British Airways is charging £348 for flights from Faro to London Heathrow on Sunday and Monday, but the price drops to £137 on Tuesday.
The requirement for travellers to take a coronavirus test in the three days before a flight to the UK departs is also creating difficulties for people in Portugal.
Those currently in Portugal claim there is a two to three-day waiting list for tests because centres are "overloaded".
But despite the hurdles facing those returning, Mr Hancock said the UK Government had been able to ease restrictions at home due to tight controls on travel rules.
His comments were made as the UK recorded its highest number of new confirmed coronavirus cases – 6,238 – since late March, according to official figures, with the Indian variant fuelling a fresh surge.
The Health Secretary, asked by reporters on Friday whether Brits were being asked to sacrifice a holiday abroad in exchange for greater freedoms at home, said: "Ultimately we are very cautious on international travel because we want to protect the success and the progress that we've made.
"We've opened up domestically and been able to do that without seeing an increase in the number of hospitalisations.
"And that is partly because we are tough on international travel.
"We have the green list there for countries where it is safe to go to but we've always said that we're willing to act, to take countries off that green list if we need to.
"It doesn't give me any pleasure that we've had to do that with Portugal but it is so important for protecting the vaccine rollout here at home."
Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling was instrumental to the UK locking down in March 2020, said a "cautious" approach is needed as the Government balances the potential risks against a desire for normality.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Friday: "We know at the moment that the Delta variant, the Indian variant, is doubling across the country about every nine days, with some variability place to place.
"But we haven't fully seen the effect of what happened from May 17, step three, the relaxation of restrictions, come through into that data, so we expect that to accelerate even more."
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