Health Secretary Matt Hancock has not ruled out imposing local lockdown restrictions in places worst affected by the Indian variant of coronavirus.
With a higher transmissibility than the Kent variant – which drove the UK’s deadly second wave – there are fears the Indian variant could derail England’s final roadmap step of lifting all restrictions on 21 June.
There have so far been more than 1,300 cases of the Indian variant found in the UK, with Mr Hancock warning it is "becoming the dominant strain" in places such as Bolton and Blackburn.
Although he said tomorrow’s stage three easing of lockdown restrictions across England – allowing limited indoor mixing between households – would still go ahead, the health secretary said it was "too early to tell" if the fourth and final stage of England’s roadmap would go ahead as planned.
And, asked if the roadmap could be altered to see different restrictions in some parts of the country to others, Mr Hancock told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday show: "We don’t rule that out.
"The approach we’re taking in Bolton and Blackburn is to absolutely pile in testing and vaccinations to try to get on top of this."
Mr Hancock pointed to the "difference between now and December" – when the Kent variant was discovered and pushed England into a third national lockdown – which was the vaccine rollout and an "amazing testing and surveillance system".
He said there were efforts to test 35,000 people this weekend in response to the growth in cases of the India variant, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced plans to accelerate second dose vaccinations for people in priority groups.
"When we had an outbreak of the South African variant in south London last month we put in a huge amount, hundreds of thousands of tests in surge testing – people came forward in their droves across Southwark and Lambeth and Wandsworth, and we got that under control," Mr Hancock added.
"That was the testing and tracing system working very effectively to clamp down on an outbreak.
"We’re taking the same approach in Bolton and Blackburn, we’ve put in a huge amount of testing, we’ve reinforced that with Army personnel as well, and we’re expanding the vaccination programme – especially for those second jabs which are the best protection against ending up in hospital.
"So at the moment we’re taking the approach that worked in south London – which is this massive surge testing – but of course we don’t rule out further action.
"Given though that Bolton has been in some kind of a lockdown for a year, it’s not a step we’d want to take. But of course we might have to take it and we will if it’s necessary to protect people."
In Bolton, where a number of people have ended up in hospitals with the Indian variant, the "vast majority" had been eligible for a COVID jab but not yet had one, Mr Hancock said.
He added: "If you’re eligible for the jab, if you’re over the age of 38, please come forward because we know the jab protects you and we know with a high degree of confidence that the jab will have an effect against this new variant too."