Cases of variant have doubled in past week in Bolton and Blackburn, north-west England
The highly transmissible India variant of coronavirus has been found in 86 districts across the UK, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said, as he urged the public to stay cautious when meeting friends indoors.
Authorities identified 2,323 cases of the variant as of Monday, with cases doubling in the past week in Bolton and Blackburn in north-west England, Mr Hancock told the House of Commons on Monday.
With 86 local authorities confirmed to have found five or more cases of the India variant, Mr Hancock said it was vital that people be vaccinated.
He said most people with the strain known as B16172 in areas around Bolton had not received a shot and early evidence suggested vaccines still worked against this variant.
“The vaccination programme can give us confidence but we must be alert to new variants that can jeopardise the advances that we’ve made,” Mr Hancock said.
“We must proceed with caution and care, and bear down on the virus in whatever form it attacks us.”
An English ban on households mixing indoors was relaxed on Monday, and bars, restaurants and cafes were allowed to open to customers inside for the first time in months.
The vaccine programme is being altered to give over-50s and the most vulnerable their second dose more quickly to ensure they are protected as soon as possible.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the final stage of lifting restrictions, due on June 21, might be delayed amid rising concerns over the new variant.
Mr Hancock faced repeated questions in Parliament over reopening international travel, given that many variants have been brought into Britain from overseas.
From Monday, Britons are able to travel to countries on the “green list”, including Portugal and Israel, with no need for quarantine on return.
But there are concerns over a lack of clarity about the “amber list” of countries, including France and Spain, which people are legally allowed to visit but have been told by ministers not to.
Jeremy Hunt, a Conservative member of Parliament and former health secretary, called for “absolute clarity” on the rules.
Mr Hancock said the government advice was “very clear”.
“People should not travel to amber list countries for a holiday,” he said.
Mr Hancock came under fire for the timing of the decision to ban travel from India, amid concern from opposition politicians that a delay in April had opened the doors to thousands of people who could have been infected with the variant.
He insisted that the right decisions had been made at the time, saying Pakistan and Bangladesh were put on the red list two weeks earlier because the people arriving from these countries had higher infection rates than passengers from India.
Mr Hancock denied claims from several members of Parliament that the real reason was because Mr Johnson did not want to offend Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi before a planned trade visit.
That trip was eventually cancelled on April 19, the same day that India was put on the red list.